This Spring, Put Students First
Federal policy must first look beyond efforts that merely increase college enrollment. We must do that — but while also increasing student success and never compromising on quality.
By Jesse O’Connell
It is spring in Washington, D.C. I know this because it was 70 degrees on Saturday and 35 degrees today, the trees have begun to turn pink, and there are literally thousands of people in the way wherever I try to go.
In a way, it is always spring in Washington. The season’s hopeful anticipation — that promise of a warmer sun just beyond the calendar’s edge — that feeling never really goes away here. There is always a sense that this could be the moment a major priority moves, that the waiting is just about to end, that action is imminent. This is the feeling — the spring feeling — that draws, and has always drawn, idealists to L’Enfant’s ten square miles. Don’t believe the cynic who tells you this city is a transactional swamp of status quo. This is a spring city.
It especially feels like spring for higher education. An outbreak of action related to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act has stoked anticipation and built enthusiasm. The House Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing on college affordability, the Senate HELP Committee revisited financial aid application simplification, and the White House released its priorities for reauthorization; joining already released platforms from chairmen Rep. Scott and Sen. Alexander, as well as ranking members Sen. Murray and Rep. Foxx.
We’ve seen a flurry of legislative activity as well. The College Transparency Act and the Debt-Free College Act were both re-introduced last week, and fellow holdovers from the 115th Congress — the JOBS Act, REAL Act, and Investing in Student Achievement (ISA) Act — are expected to join them in the coming days.
In the midst of all this, we recently refreshed our own federal policy priorities with an eye toward putting students at the center of our higher education system. At Lumina, we are urgently working to transform higher education to be more accessible, affordable and equitable. We have a transparent commitment to the creation of a just and fair universal postsecondary learning system that offers every American the opportunity for a better life, and federal policy will be a necessary part of moving us toward that system.
But federal policy must look beyond efforts that merely increase college enrollment. We must surely do that — but while also increasing student success and never compromising on quality. We must know and understand the needs of today’s students — most especially students of color, adult students, students from low-income households, and students who are the first in their families to attend college — and be responsive to the rapidly changing technological and workforce environments they face.
With that in mind, our high-level federal policy priorities are:
- Support today’s students no matter where or how they learn;
- Eliminate disparities in educational outcomes across racial and ethnic groups;
- Reform quality assurance to focus on individual student outcomes;
- Ensure that postsecondary education is affordable, and
- Align the postsecondary education and workforce development systems.
Our priorities are meant to prompt a discussion about how higher education needs to change, and how we can create and sustain the will for that change. The common thread running through these priorities is that they put students at the center of our system, empowering all Americans to pursue fulfilling, well-lived lives. Today’s students walk many paths, but at the end of each, they always find the best version of themselves.
In the face of huge forces reshaping our economy and driving the need for college degrees and other postsecondary credentials, we must never lose sight of who the system serves. We must never lose sight of the students at the center of it all.
It is spring in Washington, and in this season of promises renewed, let us start with that promise to students.