As the nation strives to meet the growing need for talent to drive today’s knowledge economy and democratic society, more and more Americans agree that increasing postsecondary attainment is critical. Business, union leaders, governors from both parties and President Barack Obama, agree that higher rates of college-level learning are needed — both to ensure the nation’s progress and to enhance the lives of millions of individual Americans. The political will for postsecondary attainment is there and growing, but it’s up to Congress to capitalize on it, creating federal policies that make student success in higher education a national priority.
The country needs a 21st century higher education system focused on student success and high-quality learning. Students need postsecondary education that helps them meet their goals for the future, including a good job and a good life. They should not have to incur so much debt that they choose not to follow public-service career paths, or buy a house, or start a family. Students and their employers should know what their degrees and other credentials mean in terms of the knowledge and skills they have learned — not just how many hours they sat in classrooms.
Building this system will require action on the part of many Americans, including colleges and universities, communities large and small, state policymakers, business leaders and philanthropic organizations.
Federal policymakers, too, must take action. This is not without precedent. Without the Morrill Act, we would not have our system of public land grant colleges. Without the GI Bill, millions of veterans might not have had access to a higher education. And without the creation of the Pell Grant, college would have remained out of reach for too many qualified students with financial need.
The common thread linking these historic acts is that the federal government sought to promote equitable access to postsecondary education. This role continues to be critical on Capitol Hill, especially for low-income, minority and other underserved populations. But given society’s needs, it’s not enough. Today, with how crucial postsecondary learning is to the country’s economic needs, individual prosperity and social progress, federal policymakers should seize the opportunity to enhance access for students and also ensure their success in postsecondary education.
The critical question is this: given the growing societal needs, what can Congress do, in partnership with other stakeholders, to help create the system the country needs? Federal policy can be a key driver in helping to create a system that is focused on student success and quality of delivery. That system must be far more open and transparent, so students from all backgrounds can see how to get into and through postsecondary education. It must recognize and credit learning wherever it is obtained — not just in colleges and universities, but also in the military, in the workplace, and in other settings.
Federal policymakers can support the creation and expansion of clear pathways so students can navigate the system to earn a high-quality credential — not just degrees, but also certificates and other credentials of value. This requires supporting innovative practices at institutions of higher education and other quality postsecondary education providers.
And yes, Congress must help ensure that postsecondary education is affordable. Working in partnership with states and providers to keep prices low, federal policy can provide support to students with financial need, and craft programs that are aligned with one another to maximize aid delivered to students.
Finally, and, most critically, federal policy must assure the quality of credentials in terms of student learning. Assuring quality in terms of student learning requires placing a priority on measures of student success, working with a variety of validators to accurately and transparently measure educational quality, and providing meaningful information to help students make informed decisions.
Through it all, students must be at the center of this new system. They represent the talent that will power our economy, strengthen our democracy, and support our collective well-being as a society. Federal policy will need to be dramatically reshaped for this to happen — no easy task given the billions of dollars, thousands of colleges and universities, and millions of lives at stake. Congress and the Administration must display commitment and cooperation; they must work with all stakeholders, regardless of political affiliation, to build a system that truly serves today’s — and tomorrow’s — students.
Our nation needs student success. It’s no longer an option. Congress can’t solve all of the challenges in making student success happen, but it must demonstrate leadership, much as it has in the past. Now is the time to get started.
Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation.