In a wide-ranging conversation about the state of higher education today, Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell discussed paying for higher ed, the ways institutions must adapt to serve the new typical student, the role of nontraditional providers, and the need for accountability.
The session was part of LinkedIn’s one-day seminar in New York City, Education Connect: The Future of Higher Education.
When it comes to paying for higher ed, Mitchell spoke about the federal government’s share, as well as the role of institutions and states. He pointed to Purdue, which has frozen tuition for five years in a row, and other state schools that have chosen to cut tuition to scale back the runaway costs on students. Mitchell said he thought college and university leaders are attuned to the fact that families cannot support increasing costs forever.
At the federal level, the Obama administration has expanded access to Pell Grants and increased the maximum amount students can receive. It has made tax credits available to families to offset education costs. But state disinvestment has created a gap that families have been most burdened with making up.
“States simply have to re-fund higher education,” Mitchell said. “To see our state flagship universities being starved by a lack of resources, to see families burdened with increasing tuition costs at precisely the moment when we are seeing the most diverse set of students graduate high school and try to move on to college, I think it’s a huge problem for families and it’s a huge problem for the nation.”
The conversation about cost has contributed greatly to innovations in the way higher education is delivered. That is true for alternative providers joining the marketplace with shorter time-frame programs or flexible options, as well as traditional institutions expanding their own online and flex time offerings.
The Department of Education announced Wednesday it would give unaccredited alternative education providers access to federal financial aid funding through partnerships with accredited institutions blessed by the Educational Quality Through Innovation Partnerships (EQUIP) program. Coding bootcamps and other increasingly popular programs offering alternative credentials are expected to get access to the funding.
These new opportunities give students an opportunity to earn a credential, retrain for a career change, or simply gain new skills. Certainly, access to federal funding to cover the costs will enable more students to take advantage of the opportunities and give providers a broader potential audience. But Mitchell emphasized it’s not just new providers that are expanding opportunity in the higher education realm.
“I think that the world of higher education is changing without you, me, the federal Department of Education, and it’s fundamentally changing because the nature of students is changing,” Mitchell said.
The “traditional” student, who goes straight to college from high school and gets a bachelor’s in four years is not the typical student. More than half of students today attend community college. Many of them are working adults.
It’s true, not all institutions will have to change. Some serve very specific student populations that likely will remain stable. But Mitchell commended Arizona State University for its expansion into hybrid and online programming, broadening its reach by tens of thousands of students. He expects a lot more institutions to move toward those multiple modalities.
In terms of evaluating such institutions, like the changing students they’re serving, the quality control mechanism used to assess them must change. Student outcomes have not always been central to the accreditation process but Mitchell said that is the shift the Department of Education would like to see. It is supporting the creation of new accountability measures and assessment tools to gauge the new definitions of success.
It is clear, however, that not all institutions will survive the shift from a focus on enrollment and access to access and outcomes. The gainful employment rules are expected to threaten the livelihoods of more than 1,000 for-profit institutions, specifically.
Looking ahead to revising accreditation, Mitchell said the three questions used to judge potential coding bootcamps being considered for the experimental sites program will be useful. What are the claims the provider is making, what is the evidence they collect about student learning, and what are the outcomes for students over time?
“We think by focusing on outcomes and by drawing up the bar, we will be ensuring students are protected and we’ll be encouraging all actors, public and private, to up their game,” Mitchell said.
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