The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) remains a top priority for both the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP). Late last year, House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairwoman Virginia Foxx, introduced the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act—a bill that would reauthorize the HEA for the first time since 2008 if signed into law. The PROSPER Act passed out of Committee on a party-line vote of 23-17 but has yet to be considered on the House floor.
Meanwhile, the Senate HELP Committee is continuing to work towards an HEA reauthorization bill and is seeking input from stakeholders across all disciplines. As a result, National Skills Coalition (NSC) recently submitted a set of recommendations to Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-SC) and Ranking Member Murray (D-WA) of the Senate HELP Committee.
The letter outlines the significant need for modernization of the HEA—as approximately 80 percent of jobs today require some form of postsecondary education or training beyond the high school level, as opposed to 28 percent in 1973, and that 50 percent of jobs today are “middle-skill,” meaning they require more than a high school diploma but not a four-year degree.
Given this reality, more and more individuals, including adults and working students, are engaging in higher education to equip themselves with the skills needed to succeed in today’s economy. However, most federal higher education policies have historically been geared towards a more traditional student population, such as first-time, full-time students between the ages of 18-25. HEA reauthorization is an opportunity to ensure these federal policies are inclusive of all postsecondary students.
In 2016, NSC released a proposal for a new Community College Compact—a series of policy recommendations developed with input from leaders in the higher education, business, labor and workforce development fields, which identifies steps federal policymakers can take to ensure that all students, workers and employers can compete and prosper. NSC used each component of the Compact to provide tangible policy proposals to the HELP Committee, including:
- Eliminate the bias against working learners seeking in-demand credentials by supporting the Jumpstarting our Businesses by Supporting Students (JOBS) Act (S.206):
- Today, most federal financial aid is reserved for programs that are at least 600 clock hours of instruction over 15 weeks. As a result, working adults and other students who wish to enroll in short-term credit or noncredit programs that result in industry recognized credentials must often pay out of pocket to cover the cost of enrollment or commit to an academic program that meets financial aid requirements even if it will not help them succeed in their chosen field.
- To address this disconnect between current federal policy and the needs of today’s students and employers, NSC recommends adopting language from the JOBS Act—a bipartisan bill introduced by Senators Kaine (D-VA) and Portman (R-OH), which expands Pell grant eligibility to students enrolled in programs of study that are at least 150 clock hours of instruction over a period of at least 8 weeks. The bill also contains quality assurance provisions to ensure these programs are recognized as valuable by local employers and that they align with broader career pathways when appropriate.
- Measure postsecondary outcomes to ensure program quality by adopting language from the College Transparency Act (S. 1121, H.R. 2434):
- Most students today enroll in postsecondary education to find long-term success in the labor market. However, those who invest in higher education do not currently have a way of knowing what they can expect from specific programs in terms of employment and earnings—due to existing legal restrictions on the collection of student-level data.
- As a solution, NSC supports the inclusion of language from the bipartisan College Transparency Act, led by Senators Hatch (R-UT), Warren (D-MA), Cassidy (R-LA) and Whitehouse (D-RI) as well as Representatives Mitchell (R-MI) and Polis (D-CO). This bill would allow for the creation of a secure postsecondary student level data network administered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to which colleges would be able to safely and easily report their data. NCES would be responsible for matching this data with other existing data to create useable information for the public while maintaining student privacy. Passage of this legislation is a necessary step to providing clear and comprehensive student outcomes data to all consumers.
- Ensure the success of today’s college students by enacting the Gateway to Careers Act (S. 2407) which will support working learners:
- In today’s economy, 80 percent of jobs require some form of credential beyond a high school diploma. This reality is drawing more and more working adults and other nontraditional students into higher education, a trend that is even more pronounced at community and technical colleges. As a result, states and higher education leaders across the country are working to implement innovative career pathway models that provide nontraditional students with the services they need to succeed, which can include career counseling and case management services, direct support services like child care and transportation assistance and accelerated learning models for working adults. However, there has historically been an overall lack of federal support for career pathways.
- Therefore, NSC encourages the Committee to include the Gateway to Careers Act in any HEA reauthorization bill. Introduced by Senators Hassan (D-NH), Kaine (D-VA), Shaheen (D-NH), and Reed (D-RI) aims to support career pathways for nontraditional students through dedicated grant funding administered by the Secretary of Education in consultation with the Secretary of Labor. These grants would be awarded to institutions working in partnership to serve students through the expansion of dual enrollment opportunities, the provision of direct support services and case management services, or by providing other forms of assistance as outlined in the legislation.
- Create a new permanent program to support industry-community college partnerships by enacting language from the Community College to Career Fund Act (S. 2390):
- Community colleges across the nation partner with industries every day to develop skilled worker pipelines that support economic growth. These partnerships help ensure that local training prepared workers for local jobs. However, Congress has not invested in these models at a scale that would sustain economic competitiveness since the expiration of the highly successful Trade Adjustment Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant program in FY 2014.
- Therefore, NSC encourages the use of language from the Community College to Career Fund Act as a framework for a permanent program to support industry-community college partnerships at the federal level. This bill, led by Senators Duckworth (D-IL), Smith (D-MN), Kaine (D-VA) and Feinstein (D-CA) would direct the Secretaries of Labor and Education to award grant funding on a competitive basis to eligible industry-driven partnerships so that they can develop and provide education or career training programs for workers. NSC believes the inclusion of this bill in an HEA reauthorization is the best way to support valuable industry partnerships while avoiding duplication across existing federal policies.
NSC is grateful to the HELP Committee for its work to improve existing federal higher education policies and looks forward to continuing to provide input throughout the Higher Education Act reauthorization process.