Students Put All Their Eggs in One Basket

According to recent data released by the U.S. Department of Education, two-thirds of college freshmen who applied for federal student loans or grants last year indicated that they were applying to only one institution.

Sixty-eight percent of freshmen filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid during the 2014-15 academic year instructed the Education Department to send their information to only one college, the department said. That’s down from 80 percent in the 2008-09 school year.

Congress Advances Legislation on College Savings

The U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 529 with a strong bipartisan vote (401-20). Under the bill, college students would be allowed to use 529 funds for computers and other school-related technology and electronic equipment to be used primarily by the student.  Currently 529 rules allow for computer expenditures only if the college a student attends requires a computer.

In addition, H.R. 529 would allow a student to redeposit funds back in a 529 within 60 days without penalty if they need to withdraw from a college class. Finally the bill simplifies the tax rules for distributions from multiple accounts.

The Senate has advanced a companion bill (S. 335) out of the Senate Finance Committee.

Obama Administration Takes Executive Action with Higher Education Accreditors

Last week the U.S. Department of Education announced a set of executive actions and proposed legislative steps to strengthen oversight of higher education accreditation agencies.

The suite of executive actions is designed to improve accreditors’ and the Department’s oversight activities and move towards a new focus on student outcomes and transparency. They include:

  • Publishing each accreditor’s standards for evaluating student outcomes. The Department will publish a chart with each agency’s stated student achievement measures, including any specific thresholds.
  • Increasing transparency in the accreditation process and in institutional oversight. The Department will require accreditors to submit decision letters when they place institutions on probation. To be transparent, the Department will post online all publicly releasable portions of such letters. In addition the Department has created a new accreditation website to facilitate easier access to information about accreditation, including the accreditation status of postsecondary institutions as reported to the Department, an overview of the accreditation system and requirements, and the new informational resources announced today. Finally, the Department also encourages accreditors and institutions to make their processes and decisions more open to the public and to students.
  • Increasing coordination within the Department and among accreditors, other agencies, and states to improve oversight. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has directed the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE) and the Chief Operating Officer of FSA to report back within 75 days on strategies to improve information coordination across accreditors, OPE, and FSA. Duncan has also requested through his memorandum that Department staff provide further guidance and clarification to accreditors in understanding the flexibility they already have under current law to apply risk-based approaches in their oversight of institutions. Department staff will also be asked to work with accreditors as they explore additional opportunities to direct their attention and resources to outcomes-driven oversight.
  •  Publishing key student and institutional metrics for postsecondary institutions arranged by accreditors.
  • Promoting greater attention to outcomes within current accreditor review processes. The Department will ensure that accrediting staff in the Office of Postsecondary Education have access to critical outcomes data, state and federal litigation reports, and other information about each agency’s schools prior to conducting their reviews. The Department will also supply that information to NACIQI to support its training and policy development activities, to help it frame a policy agenda regarding the agency recognition process, and for its own evaluation of accreditor standards and processes. In addition, the Department will encourage accreditors, within the scope of its current authority, to apply outcomes-directed measures in accreditation and monitoring of institutions that have weak outcomes.

Accompanying the executive actions is a set of legislative proposals to guide Congressional action on improving and reforming accreditation. This includes the following recommendations to Congress:

  • Repeal the statutory prohibition on its ability to set and enforce expectations regarding student achievement standards in accreditor recognition. Building off of today’s executive actions to publish the wide range of accreditors’ student outcome standards and the performance of their institutions, we recommend that Congress provide for the differentiated recognition of accreditors based on student outcomes and other risk-based criteria.
  • Establish recognition standards that require accreditors to request more complete teach-out plans from high-risk institutions based on an expanded set of outcomes and other risk indicators. Accreditors would also be required to ensure that there are resources available to cover the costs of executing such teach-out plans to shield students and taxpayers.
  • Require a single federal vocabulary for major actions and terms, including sanctions and key outcomes.
  • Require all final accreditation documents relating to academic and institutional quality be made publicly available for each eligible institution participating under Title IV, and published at a federally maintained website. This includes any final report or analysis of the agency or association, as determined by the Secretary in consultation with NACIQI, regarding whether an institution or program is in compliance with the standards of the agency or association.

Coalition Releases Principles for Consideration in the Reauthorization of the HEA

Last week a coalition of twelve organizations released seven principles for policymakers to consider for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA).  The Coalition joins a growing chorus of voices with recommendations for the reauthorization of the HEA.

The Coalition’s principles focus on the need for the Act to better meet the needs of students in their pursuit of a high-quality, affordable and relevant postsecondary education:

  • Focus on outcomes
  • Greater flexibility for financial aid policies
  • Greater connections between higher education and work
  • More transparency and rigor for accreditation
  • Greater focus of quality assurance processes on programs and credentials
  • Encourage more innovation and experimentation
  • Greater coordination with other federally funded education and training programs

The twelve organizations participating in the Coalition include New America, the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Center for Law and Social Policy, the Aspen Institute Skills for American’s Future, National Governors Association, Jobs for the Future, National Skills Coalition, National Association of System Heads, Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, HR Policy Association, and the Committee for Economic Development.

U.S. Department of Education Approves Plans to Provide Equal Access to Excellent Educators, Washington Included

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced the approval of the District of Columbia’s and seventeen states,’ including Washington, plans to ensure equitable access to excellent educators.

A part of the Excellent Educators for All Initiative, the 17 states and the District of Columbia receiving approval of their plans are taking promising steps to eliminate the gaps some students face in access to excellent educators by implementing strategies and innovative solutions to challenging problems that meet local needs.

Each of the states and the District are working to support, strengthen, or modify teacher preparation programs to help ensure that all teachers are ready to provide high-quality instruction to their students and are prepared for success in high-needs schools.

Eleven of the states, including Washington, are taking steps to increase data-driven decision making to help ensure that schools and districts have access to accurate, timely information necessary to make knowledgeable decisions. Five states, including Washington, have included strategies that provide incentives designed to reward teachers for exceptional work and to encourage excellent educators to remain in the highest-need schools. More specifically, all of the states and the District of Columbia announced they are committed to holding themselves publicly accountable for meaningful progress in eliminating identified equity gaps by publicly reporting their progress.

New Student Debt Report Released, Washington Remains a Low Debt State

Students who took out student loans and graduated with a baccalaureate degree in 2014 had an average debt load of $28,950. At Washington institutions that grant baccalaureate degrees (i.e. public baccalaureate, four-year independents, and some community colleges) the average debt was $24,804.

Washington also ranks in the top 16 of states with the lowest percentage of students with debt.

 According to the report, approximately one-sixth of all debt accumulated by the 2014 graduates was in the form of private student loans.

New Report Gives Voice to the Working Learners

In the United States today, 8 percent of the total labor force and a consistent 70-80 percent of college students are both active in the labor market and formally enrolled in some form of postsecondary education or training.

In a new report released by Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Learning While Earning: The New Normal, the Center examined who the worker learners are, and offers policy recommendations to reduce barriers for these students.

Two-thirds of the worker learners are 16-29 years old and over half of all worker learners are women.  Those between 16-29 years old are disproportionality White, while those between 30-54 years old are disproportionately African American.  Over one-third of younger worker learners were low-income and 20% had children, while over two-thirds of mature worker learners were low-income and had children.

In addition, the report found that younger worker learners, defined as 16-29 years old, majored in social sciences, humanities and physical sciences, while those defined as mature working learners (30-54 years old) focused on computers, business and healthcare.  Three-quarters of mature worker learners and nearly half of younger worker learners worked full-time.  Young worker learners commonly pursued a baccalaureate degree at a four-year college, while mature worker learners focused on certificates and associate degrees and studied at community and technical colleges and for-profit institutions.

The report suggests that worker learners need stronger-ties between the worlds of work and education.  Though careers remain a central goal for a postsecondary education, students are left largely on their own to connect education to career.

To improve the connections between work and learning, federal and state policymakers should fund postsecondary education based, in part, on performance measured by labor market outcomes.

Finally, policymakers should also invest in competency-based education programs that teach skills with labor market value.