Creating Bipartisan Education Reform

The outcome of the midterm elections shows how distraught voters have become with Washington politics, where almost every issue is pitched into a partisan battle between parties and competing ideologies.

Fortunately, the administration has an opportunity to show leadership and demonstrate a desire for bipartisan solutions with the new Congress by focusing on President Barack Obama’s American Graduation Initiative. This program, whose goal is to help an additional five million Americans earn college degrees and certificates in the next decade, can strengthen the U.S. higher education system in years to come.

Indeed, the president said in a recent radio address said that economic growth and creating new jobs for American workers requires “ensuring that our students are getting the best education possible.”

Such a bold objective requires consensus-building – and an all-inclusive approach.
As someone with broad experience in government and all aspects of higher education – public, private, not-for-profit and for-profit – I have been disappointed in the “ad-hoc” nature of the administration’s first proposals to achieve the president’s noble vision.

In fact, to anyone with more than a passing interest, it looks like the Obama administration is pressing a hastily organized, narrowly-focused effort. As a result, the Department of Education’s proposals have elicited opposition and distracting political jockeying in Washington.

A better approach would be for the administration to consider creating a bipartisan “Higher Education Commission,” which can investigate the smartest ways to reform the system as a whole, examining all higher education institutions and student debt matters comprehensively.

Education is one of the single most important areas for our country to focus on improving, to keep our nation strong and prosperous. Today’s global economy is the most competitive ever, and the United States is losing ground to the rest of the world.

In fact, the United States ranked 12th among 36 developed nations, according to a recent College Board study that examined the number of 25-34 year olds with college degrees. The United States had led this category in previous reports.

Statistics like these point to the need for a comprehensive, well-thought-out approach to begin addressing the issues facing higher education – and the students seeking a degree. However, the Department of Education has so far done the opposite.

Specifically, the department’s proposed “Gainful Employment” rule, which seeks to regulate the amount of debt that students who attend career colleges can take on, has been met with legitimate criticism from both sides of the aisle. The rules purport to target higher education programs with high loan default rates. However, many have expressed concern that, because of the demographics of the students in these programs, these rules would have the most devastating effect on low income, underserved and minority students.

So far, the department has delayed its initial decision to consider the more than 90,000 public comments it received – far greater than any rule in the department’s history. Clearly there are many interested parties – and much at stake.

The department’s current approach is risky and illogical. Instead of focusing on crucial U.S. higher education assets – community colleges, career colleges, traditional four-year colleges and universities – it is singling out one segment. Yet this segment – career colleges – provides access for many students who might otherwise not attend college.

While many reforms may be needed, the Department of Education should be looking more broadly at all of higher education to address this issue.

Obama wants the United States to have the world’s highest percentage of college graduates.

He is also committed to increasing higher education access and success by restructuring and dramatically expanding college financial aid, while making federal programs simpler, more reliable and more efficient for students.

These bold initiatives require a holistic approach to chart the proper course forward. Isolating issues and singling out one higher education sector to the exclusion of others is more likely to fracture what could be national consensus and support for an issue that is too critical to ignore.

More important, we should be asking if one-off proposed regulations – like the gainful employment rule – are likely to rally our country around the president’s ultimate goal. I don’t think so.

Education, like national security, Social Security and Medicare, is extremely important for every American. But, education, like other issues, is also critical to our national interest.

When issues this important are losing traction, we have usually come together in a united fashion to tackle them head-on. We summon our best resources and intellectual talent to chart a prudent path forward.

I served as chairman of the 9/11 Commission, as we sought to piece together what led to that horrible tragedy. The challenge facing students seeking higher education today is far different – but equally complex.

America’s higher education system strives to serve a diverse group of students, each with different interests and needs. As we confront Obama’s challenge, the last thing we would want are the unintended consequences of regulations, which have not been carefully examined, harming any effort to reach that goal.

The father of American education, Horace Mann, once said, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”

There is nothing more American than the equal opportunity to gain a quality education to pursue one’s own goals. The president correctly points out that America’s ability to educate its young adults directly influences future economic success.

A collaborative bipartisan approach is the best path forward.

Thomas H. Kean served as governor of New Jersey, 1982-1990, when he implemented more than 30 statewide education reforms. He was president of Drew University from, 1990-2005, and chairman of the federal 9/11 Commission. He is now a general partner at Quad Partners, which invests in privately-owned education companies, including career colleges, and is an advisor to the Coalition for Educational Success.


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