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We Need a Bold, Bipartisan Plan for Higher Education Reform

Current legislation just tinkers around the edges. We need a plan that includes transparency, accountability, and evidence-based investments in what works. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray have the opportunity to collaborate on a bipartisan bill that makes a difference.

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Last week, higher education advocates finally saw some legislative action after five years of waiting when Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) unveiled a small package of higher education bills. While it includes some policy proposals that are good ideas, such as streamlining FAFSA, we at Arnold Ventures are underwhelmed.  

For the majority of students, investing in higher education is a good bet: Students with degrees have much greater earnings over their lifetimes and are more likely to be employed, even during severe recessions. But in order for that to remain true, we need legislation that does more than tinker around the edges. We believe students and taxpayers deserve a stronger, broader vision of higher education reform that dramatically improves student outcomes and our return on investment. 

The legislation introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander excludes two critical issues needed to ensure higher quality and better outcomes in higher education: transparency and accountability. (Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

Fortunately, there is a way forward. Sen. Alexander, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the HELP Committee, have both said they want to continue working toward a comprehensive reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act (HEA). We need them to put together a bold, bipartisan plan for higher education reform in our country. Here is what that plan should include:

Full transparency on how schools are serving students. 

Higher education is one of the most important investments students will make, both financially and for their life outcomes. Students deserve to have the necessary information to be informed consumers. They should be able to find out how many students like them graduate from a school or what the typical debt and earnings are for students in particular programs. Policymakers also need this information to make better decisions about where to invest resources. Fortunately, there is a bipartisan, bicameral bill that would address this issue while protecting students’ privacy: the College Transparency Act. Last week, Sen. Alexander signed on as a co-sponsor — a great step forward. Any HEA bill must include these provisions as a foundation for our higher education system.

A system of accountability that protects students from low-quality and predatory actors and pushes all students to improve. 

Unfortunately, there are far too many students taking out unmanageable debt to attend low-quality schools or predatory schools that leave them worse off than they would have been if they hadn’t attended higher education at all. And there are very few meaningful consequences for these schools that damage students’ life prospects. This needs to stop. The federal government has a responsibility to students and taxpayers to ensure federal dollars are going to schools that improve students’ lives, and institutions must have real responsibility for delivering a quality education to their students. Providing a return on investment should be a prerequisite and basic expectation of our system.  

    We are disappointed that Sen. Alexander did not include any provisions in his package that would address this problem, including common-sense consumer protections like ending the ban on forced arbitration that limits a student’s ability to address illegal behavior or closing the loophole in federal policy on GI Bill dollars that make veterans targets for predatory actors. In fact, one of the provisions — opening up Pell Grant dollars to short-term programs without meaningful quality guardrails — would invite more low-quality and potentially predatory actors to take in even more taxpayer dollars. As Sen. Alexander and Sen. Murray continue their discussions on HEA, we hope they will walk away from this dangerous policy to better protect both students and taxpayers.

    Investments in evidence. 

    One of the best ways to ensure our higher education system is providing a return on investment for students and taxpayers is to fund programs that are proven to increase student success. We have seen programs like CUNY ASAP show what is possible: nearly doubling graduation rates and demonstrating that the results can be replicated across different settings. The federal government should be investing in these programs that are proven to work and supporting research and evaluation to figure out what else makes a difference in driving improvements. The bipartisan, bicameral FINISH Act would set up such an investment and should be included in any HEA package.  

    There is still time for Sens. Alexander and Murray to collaborate on a bipartisan bill in this session.  But for this bill to make a difference, they need to be thinking big, not making small tweaks. We see an opportunity for Congress to advance a bill that increases the return on investment for higher education for both students and taxpayers, and we need our leaders to get it done.