The government has a useful tool to help more Americans go to college

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With postsecondary education more important than ever for entering and staying in the middle class, our nation urgently needs to find better ways to help more Americans access higher education and complete their degrees. To advance that goal, Congress years ago gave the U.S. Department of Education the authority to partner with colleges and universities to test out new federal higher education policies, and report back on their effectiveness, through the Experimental Sites Initiative.

Since the mid-1990s, the department has launched 30 “experiments” with this authority. They include new approaches to competency-based education that focuses on learning rather than time in school, funding dual enrollment programs so high school students can more easily take college classes, and adjustments to federal loan limits in order to better manage student borrowing. The idea is to try out these types of innovative approaches on a small scale to learn whether they are effective and, if so, recommend that Congress scale up those innovations.

{mosads}Unfortunately, the initiative has not lived up to its potential. That’s because the department rarely designed any of the experiments to learn about what works or attempted to rigorously evaluate them. Out of the 30 experiments, in fact, just two had credible evaluation plans. In some cases, the press release about an experiment may have taken precedence over tracking its results. But funding was also a legitimate and important factor. In most cases, the department lacked funding from Congress to support rigorous evaluations of the experiments.

Had there been credible evaluations of these experiments, decision makers and the postsecondary education field would now have a body of evidence on these innovations to inform higher education policy. Innovations that produced meaningful positive impacts could have been tested more broadly and potentially taken nationwide, benefiting millions of students. Regrettably, that evidence was never produced. Consider what this would look like in a different context. Imagine the U.S. Food and Drug Administration saying to pharmaceutical companies, “We’ll give you the authority to test new drugs and you don’t even have to track the outcomes with rigorous evaluation. Just try them out!”

While higher education policy is not a life or death issue in the same way, the consequences to students of whether they enter and finish college, and whether they are able to pay down their student loan debts, is significant. It is why increasing access to affordable, high quality postsecondary education is one of our nation’s most pressing policy challenges. Given the high stakes, we should be vigilant about learning what works and what does not.

Today, the Trump administration and Congress have the opportunity to turn a new leaf. First, the department should design and conduct a credible evaluation that can determine the impacts and cost effectiveness of every experiment launched under the authority. In fact, Congress should require the department to implement that policy. The department’s research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences, should serve as a valuable resource, reviewing evaluation plans, providing feedback, and ultimately certifying whether or not the plans are credible.

Second, because rigorous program evaluations cost money, Congress should provide dedicated funding for evaluations of experimental sites. That funding would be a drop in the bucket in terms of federal higher education spending, but it would facilitate stronger evaluations and help inform broader policy reforms. Finally, the department and Congress should ensure transparency of the results. All completed evaluations, as well as interim results, should be published expeditiously on the department’s website. Given that the goal is to learn what works, evaluation findings need to be easily accessible to policymakers and other stakeholders who can act on the findings.

Ensuring evaluations of experimental sites isn’t the only step that is needed to catalyze a better learning strategy for higher education policy. In 2016, for example, Congress defunded First in the World, a small but important grant program specifically designed to support and carefully test innovations in the field of higher education, a move in exactly the opposite direction needed. Rather than eliminating programs that focus on using and building evidence, Congress must champion them.

Americans know how valuable postsecondary education is for competing in a global marketplace. The Trump administration and Congress can support the success of students across the nation by ensuring continuous improvement in our higher education policies. Reviving the original mission of the Experimental Sites Initiative, to innovate and learn what works, is a good place to start.

Andrew Feldman is a member of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Collaborative and hosts the Gov Innovator podcast. He previously served at the Office of Management and Budget at the White House.

Amy Laitinen is director for higher education with the education policy program at New America. She previously served as a policy advisor for the U.S. Department of Education and the White House.

Clare McCann is deputy director for federal higher education policy with the education policy program at New America. She previously served as a senior policy advisor for the U.S. Department of Education.

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