Slices & Loaves

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

October 28, 2019

By: Michael Dannenberg

Tomorrow, the U.S. House Education & Labor Committee will consider a comprehensive rewrite of the Higher Education Act (HEA).

Among longtime student advocacy groups there’s support for the bill, but a palpable lack of enthusiasm.

Mark Huelsman of the liberal group Demos, for example in commenting on the bill, has said  “House leaders have opted for tinkering over transformation.”

Huelsman says the main ideas included in the House Democrats’ rewrite were edgy 10 years ago. Now they’re stale.

As someone who helped come up with a number of those ideas 10 years ago, and continues to generate new ideas today, I would submit Huelsman’s wrong—but also right.

Just because most of the big ideas included in the House Democrats’ higher education law rewrite are not new doesn’t mean implementation of them wouldn’t be transformative. They just aren’t transformative enough to meet the challenges we confront. But then, politics is the art of the possible.

Consider two big ideas included in the bill.

The House Democratic leaders’ bill:

Those are transformative policies.

We know from the Obama experience that cracking down on shoddy for-profits is transformative.

We know from places like Tennessee that embrace of free college is transformative.

Does the House Democrats’ higher education reauthorization proposal embrace bold and edgy, new ideas like Bernie Sanders’ student loan jubilee? No.

The biggest move in the House Democrats’ proposed higher education law rewrite is extension of Pell Grant eligibility to adults who already have a bachelor’s degree (and others) to pay for additional non-degree, short-term less than a semester long programs of varying value. Hopefully, if embraced the policy will have protections against abuse and the experience will prove positive. The proposed change represents a tremendous, transformative opportunity for community colleges in particular. It would make Pell the largest job training program in the country.

The Challenges that Remain

There’s plenty more higher education policy change that we need. In a world, where almost half of all Black student loan borrowers default – almost a quarter of Black bachelor degree holders default – we desperately need fundamental higher education reform.

We have a near 50 percent college dropout rate and between a 70 percent and 80 percent community college dropout rate.

Per student debt loads are doubling every decade. Over 1 million borrowers default each year – in an extraordinarily high employment economy.

The Rick Singer-Felicity Huffman-Lori Loughlin college admission scandal has lifted the veil on just how rigged and unfair the elite college admissions system is with its embrace of legacy, early decision, and donor preferences that don’t reward merit, undermine diversity, and are just plain unfair.

Colleges with near identical admissions standards – same median SAT & ACT scores, same median high school GPA for incoming freshmen – and similar student bodies can generate wildly different levels of access and success.

Michigan State and Florida State are peer institutions, but Michigan State has a more than 20 percent graduation gap between white and underrepresented minorities. Florida has zero gap.

At the University of Akron, which has benefitted greatly from LeBron James’ patronage of more than $40 million – only 20 percent of Black students graduate within six years of initial enrollment, worse than 11 other peer colleges serving similar students with similar academic characteristics upon enrolling.

A More Progressive Agenda

So yes, we would have liked to see House Democratic leaders embrace a more progressive higher education agenda.

Our staff testified orally before the House Committee offering specific suggestions, sent recommendations in writing to the House & Senate, and have published plenty of proposals on this website and elsewhere.

But the truth is “transformative” ideas and policy are rarely first introduced as legislation by Congressional Committee leaders. Transformative ideas tend to originate with academics, think tanks, and advocacy groups.

Transformative policy ideas tend to get turned into legislation first by junior Members of Congress. Those Members then build supportive coalitions that push other elected leaders and aspiring politicians.

Transformative ideas get put on the national political agenda by leading Governors who pick up those ideas and demonstrate their effectiveness or Presidential candidates who champion them and win or at least make a strong showing.

Transformative ideas get put on the agenda by Presidents once in office — like President Obama.

So let’s encourage or help junior Members of Congress to offer amendments to the House Democratic leaders’ bill that would lead to further transformation.

Let’s get Governors to embrace transformative, progressive higher education reform policy.

And most important, let’s get a President committed to making college cheaper, fairer, and better.

My first boss in politics, the late Senator Claiborne Pell, used to say “sometimes you get a loaf of bread one slice at a time.”

The House Democrats’ HEA bill is a slice of bread. America’s students and families are still hungry for more. That’s not a slight on the House leaders’ bill. It’s just a fact.

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