Congress is playing catch-up with today’s students
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The last time the Higher Education Act was rewritten, the iPhone was just a year old. Apple’s app store had just launched. The nation was entering the Great Recession.

In the decade since, few places changed more substantially than our nation’s colleges and universities. College tuition grew at four times the rate of inflation over the last ten years. On-campus enrollment declined while online learning accelerated. Big data is now used to spot students at risk of dropping out. And the demographics of higher education are undergoing a shift on par with the post-WWII era’s influx of GI’s on campus. 

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It’s easy to assume that most students attend college straight after high school and complete a degree in four years as residents on a campus. But that is a student-archetype that is shrinking in number and proportion. In 2008, we didn’t adequately anticipate the needs of a new majority of college students. Today’s students are more racially diverse, older, and more likely to work while in school than the students that members of Congress and staff envision or once were themselves. 

First-generation and low-income students also make up an increasingly larger share of the student population. A growing number of learners are not only facing rising tuition and fees and the continued high price of textbooks, but are also grappling with housing and food insecurity, challenges far less prevalent in decades past.

Working adults are enrolling in institutions of higher education in a labor market where postsecondary credentials are fast becoming table stakes for economic mobility in our information economy. Nearly 60 percent of students now work while in college, and 26 percent have children. About 7.8 million students attend college part-time, as they balance their education with work and family obligations, or simply cannot afford the costs of being a full-time student.

One-quarter of today’s students -- 6.3 million -- take at least one course online. That’s more than 2 million more students than a decade ago. And it’s not just the result of students taking courses through oft-derided for-profit providers. Much of this growth has occurred at public colleges and universities, with an estimated two-thirds of online students attending a public institution.

Addressing the needs of today’s students must be central to the federal policy infrastructure that undergirds our promise of higher education. Their success often hinges on more than academics, and includes a web of life and logistical challenges, from financial aid to the complexity of scheduling courses within institutions that weren’t conceived with today’s students learners in mind.

While colleges are trying to make higher education work for students who lack four years of time and money, vestigial policies are creating barriers. Prior learning assessments allow working-students to earn credit for on the job training. The growth of competency-based learning allows students to save time and money by accelerating the time it takes to earn a degree. And yet our federal financial aid system is still rooted in requirements which predicate federal loans and grants on time in class, rather than learning and outcomes.

New forms of higher education are, at the same time, proving that the degree may not be the only high-quality pathway to higher wages or a career in fast growing fields like experience design and data science. Coding bootcamps alone have graduated nearly 100,000 students since 2013, and a new generation of apprenticeships help workers learn high tech skills.

And while training programs are closing skill and equity gaps, they are largely viable only to students with access to costly private loans, are backed by an employer, or have the personal financing to participate. In the 1970’s, lawmakers created policy constructs through Pell Grants and student loans that made financing available to a generation of students who would have otherwise been locked out. It is now time to re-examine those policies in light of the changing student demographic and the innovative education delivery models that are connecting learning to today’s careers.

Re-imagining the federal role in higher education requires us to chart not just pathways through higher education but the gateway to it. In an era where we can bank, and even deposit checks from our mobile phones, the act of applying for federal student aid must be simplified in order to remove barriers that can trip up and cut out the lowest-income students and families. Some 40 percent of low-income students who are accepted to college never enroll, impacted by the still intensive processes required to access federal aid. Nearly one-third of students who would qualify for Pell Grants never file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.  

Today’s students deserve streamlined financial aid processes that draw upon a decade of advances in user experience design and technology. Non-academic supports and flexibility will enable them to appropriately focus their attention on their studies while they are navigating their ever-complex and demanding lives. And, expanding the universe of what we consider high-quality higher education will allow today’s students to learn what, and where, fits best for their lives and careers.

When reauthorizing the Higher Education Act in 2008, Congress enacted policy changes to address affordability and transparency, which were seen as the hallmark challenges of the last decade. They stemmed the rising cost of college by streamlining the federal student loan program and provided students with more information about their educational options. Policy leaders today have the opportunity to build upon these reforms and respond to the needs of today’s students. They also face the challenge of crafting a policy framework that will anticipate the evolving nature of postsecondary education well into the next decade.

Miller served as chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce from 2007-2011. He is senior education advisor with the educational publishing and technology company Cengage. Julie Peller, who served as deputy staff director to Chairman Miller, is the founder and Executive Director of Higher Learning Advocates.