Other Voices

Will Obama and Congress collide over higher ed?

The new Tarrant County College Trinity River East Campus opens to students, Monday, August 29, 2011. (Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison)
The new Tarrant County College Trinity River East Campus opens to students, Monday, August 29, 2011. (Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison) Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison

President Barack Obama’s proposals on higher education announced at the State of the Union will likely face long odds.

But even if the president’s sweeping plans don’t make it through, the door is open for real, bipartisan progress on strategies to help students gain the talent they need to prosper economically and socially in the 21st century.

It’s crucial that congressional leaders capitalize on this opportunity for momentum.

As Obama pointed out, more than two-thirds of all U.S. jobs require some higher education. Yet today fewer than 40 percent of Americans have such credentials.

Steadily rising wages for those with college degrees show that employers are willing to pay a premium for the talent they need.

Yet with college prices rising at a pace greater than inflation for nearly three decades, the prospect of college is growing dimmer for too many students.

While the problems of increasing college attainment and improving affordability are not solely the responsibility of the federal government, federal action is needed to respond to national priorities and meet the talent needs of our increasingly diverse and mobile population.

The president’s proposals to make community college tuition-free and expand certain tax credits have generated a much-needed national dialogue about reshaping higher education into a student-centered system.

Even before these announcements, leaders in both houses of Congress vowed to reauthorize the central piece of federal higher education legislation, the Higher Education Act, in the coming year.

That will not happen overnight, given the substantially different priorities that have characterized higher education policy discussions in recent years.

So does the gulf between the priorities that Congress has defined and the ambitious ideas the president has offered suggest that the two are on a collision course?

Not necessarily. This year offers the opportunity for passage of a handful of more modest federal policy changes.

These would essentially be confidence-building steps that could help improve students’ post-secondary outcomes and set the stage for more comprehensive action in the years ahead.

Several concrete ideas have emerged.

A bill authored by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., would dramatically simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, making it easier for millions of current and prospective college students to fill out the required financial aid form and receive tuition support.

It’s especially significant that Alexander, who leads the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has made the bill a priority.

Making student aid eligibility more understandable for students is a necessary component of a student-centered system.

So, too, is the push to measure — and pay for — students’ progress based on what they’ve learned, rather than the number of credit hours they’ve earned.

Last summer, a bill that passed the House unanimously would have provided pathways for students to use their federal aid dollars at colleges that incorporate this competency-based approach, thereby making it easier for students with some prior learning or work experience to earn their degrees.

Similar legislation had bipartisan support in the Senate.

If such a bill does pass, it would help propel the growth of other innovative models for promoting and measuring student readiness.

Congress also has an opportunity to build upon existing bipartisan momentum to advance workforce education.

Last year, the House and Senate reauthorized the Workforce Investment Act, and Obama signed it into law.

This could lead to more ambitious initiatives to give students the credentials they need to succeed in the 21st-century workplace, from certificate programs run by community colleges to training programs that companies conduct to prepare prospective hires for specific jobs.

While smaller in scale than the sweeping education-overhaul proposals that tend to grab headlines, these policy changes would remind the public — and our elected officials — that bipartisan cooperation on higher education is possible.

Jamie P. Merisotis is president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, a national foundation dedicated to increasing Americans’ college attainment.