The House Education and the Workforce Committee held its first hearing of 2017 on February 7 to discuss challenges and opportunities in higher education as it begins to review possible reforms to the Higher Education Act.
In her opening statement, Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) explained, "We've worked in recent years to make changes that will strengthen America's higher education system and help ensure a college degree is accessible and affordable. It's clear that more has to be done. Fortunately, with reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, we have an opportunity to do just that-advance bold, responsible, and meaningful reforms."
Foxx explained that four principles would guide the work ahead:
- Empowering students and families to make informed decisions.
- Simplifying and improving student aid.
- Promoting innovation, access, and completion.
- Providing strong accountability and a limited federal role.
A panel of four witnesses then shared their ideas and perspectives on higher education and the above principles. The panel members included:
- Beth Akers, senior fellow, Manhattan Institute
- William Kirwan, chancellor emeritus, University System of Maryland, and co-chair of the Senate Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education
- José Luis Cruz, president, Lehman College of the City University of New York
- Kevin Gilligan, chairman and chief executive officer, Capella Education Company
Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL) questioned the panel on what he characterized as "skyrocketing" administrative costs and increasing administrator-to-student ratios. Kirwan explained that while excessive growth of administrators should not be tolerated, "sometimes we overlook the fact that non-instructional staff play a very important role in the institution."
He cited the investment Georgia State University has made in analytics and advisors, examining student retention and graduation rates. They found certain moments when intrusive advising was essential in keeping students on track to graduate. These advisors-categorized as administrators-increased retention and graduation rates.
Kirwan cautioned that when talking about growth in administration, "we need to know: what are these administrators doing, and are they playing a role in helping students be more successful at our institutions?"
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) asked Akers how institutions can assure students that they are getting value out of their tuition dollars given the prevalence of construction seen on college and university campuses.
Akers noted that many students attend public institutions where "the cost of education ... is quite affordable." She added that institutions need to encourage students and families to think about the variety of higher education options that are available. Educating students and families to be sensitive to price, Akers said, will "both benefit them individually but also put pressure on institutions to keep their own prices in line with value and maybe reconsider some of those construction projects."
Next Potential Hearing?
Throughout the hearing, there were several references to a 2015 report from the Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education, Recalibrating Regulation of Colleges and Universities. A bipartisan group of senators established the task force, co-chaired by Kirwan, in 2013 to help inform their efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.
While the Senate committee charged with education has examined the report in hearings, the House committee has not. Asked by Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA) if the committee would consider holding a hearing to review regulations highlighted in the report and examine which might be prime for revision or elimination, Chairwoman Foxx said that she would look in to the matter.
A video of the hearing and copies of prepared statements are available on the Education and the Workforce committee website.