A Year in Review: Reflections on 2018 and the Year Ahead

As 2018 comes to a close, I can’t help but look back at what turned out to be a dynamic and fascinating year of developments in higher education policy and practice and look forward to the year ahead. As federal policymakers and advocates are working toward updating major laws—including the Higher Education Act—and regulations, consider the incredible work of states, communities, and institutions leading by the charge to ensure success for all of today’s students.

States and communities have taken an increasingly dynamic approach to higher education policy. Responding to a tidal shift in student demographics, a growing number of institutions are reimagining curriculum, programs and supports to fit with students who face different needs and responsibilities than the traditional undergraduate learner.

And states are forging ahead with bold thinking on accountability and equity—many of them making official their commitment to increasing postsecondary attainment and reducing historic achievement gaps. It may seem simple, but codifying a commitment to equity as a statement of policy has proven to be a powerful force for changing outcomes in a growing number of students.

State policymakers and leaders have shored up their commitment to student success through statewide attainment goals and are using data and metrics to understand their successes and failures. Consider Indiana, which saw a 7 percentage point increase in African-American college completion and 12 percentage points increase among Hispanic students. States are proving that outcomes-based policy works.

This is not to say that federal policy is unnecessary or irrelevant.  Instead, it shows that policy as a tool to further student success is not only possible- it’s powerful. As federal policymakers consider reforms in the year ahead, looking beyond the beltway to the work in the states and by vanguard leaders at institutions, in communities, and on worksites will better inform the potential solutions for the path ahead.

I’m proud that we have helped to elevate some of these leaders, through our Champions Network, which brings together a distinguished and bipartisan group of institutional, state and community leaders devoted to improving quality, outcomes and affordability in postsecondary education. Through the network, we’ve injected new voices into the national discourse, with the hopes of showing what’s possible, what’s working, and what federal policy can learn from the work of dedicated advocates and leaders across the country.

Elevating student voices has also been core to the work that Higher Learning Advocates does. And I firmly believe that listening to stories of today’s students will only strengthen our resolve and political will to find solutions. Long-held assumptions about the student experience are finally slipping away. Today’s students have vastly different needs, aspirations and demographics than the students of a decade ago. As advocates, we should take heart that this reality may be breaking through to the chambers of Congress in ways that portend real opportunities to change policy.

At the end of the day, federal policy alone will not address the critical issue of student success, but we can no longer afford to write it off as a barrier or irrelevant to the change we need. The last HEA reauthorization, ten years ago in August, is becoming a distant dot in the rear view mirror (for further reading, see Emily Bouck and India Heckstall’s op-ed examining ten trends since the last reauthorization of the Higher Education Act). And it is time for thoughtful, bipartisan, federal reforms that update policies, support student success for all of today’s students, and strike a balance between allowing for new approaches to postsecondary learning with ensuring that students, and taxpayers, can be assured they are getting a high-quality, high-value experience.

With the return of divided power in Congress, it’s unclear what twists and turns reauthorization may take in the new year. Prognistacing about the legislative future is always fraught with difficulty (wish I had a crystal ball). Still, there are signals that policymakers and advocates have shared interests in bipartisan reforms to the current federal law, with widening awareness that today’s students need new policy solutions. And the Department of Education will lead a regulatory process that will surface key questions about quality, innovation, and the future of higher education. If we continue to listen to the needs of today’s students and learn from successes happening across the country, higher education may be poised for important and big things in 2019.