As the Higher Ed Opportunity Act Turns 10, Here’s How the Landscape Has Changed

By Emily Bouck and India Heckstall

Ten years ago, on August 14, 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), the last comprehensive reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). This took place during the buildup to a financial crisis that ultimately cost 8.7 million American jobs.

Now, with mounting college costs and loan defaults raising questions about financial security and employability in a fast-moving economy, the students of 2018 expect a return on their investment in exchange for the cost of going to college. In 2008, we worried about losing savings, and major banks and automakers going out of business. Today, we worry about the effects of automation and disruption, and whether workers will have adequate skills for the jobs of tomorrow.

While the same law is on the books, much has changed in the country and in the higher education sector, and HEA is long overdue for another reauthorization. In no particular order, here’s a look back at ten key trends that have impacted the world of higher education since the last HEA reauthorization in 2008.

1. Performance Focus

A decade ago, the major debates in higher education while reauthorizing HEA centered on affordability, accessibility and transparency around the net price of college. Even illegal internet file-sharing on college campuses received major attention. (Spotify wouldn’t be introduced in the U.S. until 2011!)

But higher education’s more recent, concerted push toward a focus on student outcomes and completion was really just beginning. Since 2008, key associations, foundations, states and institutions nationwide have embraced a shift in increasing access and ensuring success. States have moved to strengthen performance-based funding models and reward institutions for the student outcomes they produce, instead of simply enrollment. Outcomes-based policy will be a fixture of the upcoming debate over the future of federal higher education accountability.

2. Data Destiny

The 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act took a historically consequential step by banning the linkage of student-level data with federal earnings data. Though some advocates believe this would lead to better consumer information and transparency about the return on investment for college, the linkage was banned because of differences over student data privacy and how big a role the federal government should play in higher education.

While the ban on a federal student-level data network still stands, data is at the forefront of the work that institutions, states and researchers are doing to improve student outcomes. A growing chorus of higher education organizations are now backing legislation to overturn the ban so students and families can have better information about which higher education institution and program is the best fit for them, while still ensuring that student privacy is protected.

3. Alternative Providers: Hype or Hope?

In the decade since HEOA passed, the world of technology and learning has been in a state of constant change. New pathways, providers and delivery models have emerged with the potential to serve a wider range of students in ways that may be less costly and more directly tied to in-demand skills. Supporters of innovation have championed approaches like digital badges, alternative credentials, competency-based education (CBE), and work-based learning for the convenience, flexibility, and efficiency they have to offer. Now, the debate is centered on whether short-term, skills-based programs can offer a rigorous, high-quality enough education to live up to their full potential.

4. Bootcamps on the Ground?

Speaking of alternative providers, short-term skills training and bootcamps have been a topic of conversation in higher ed for the condensed educational courses they offer focused on skills connected to in-demand jobs. The most widely-recognized bootcamps are “coding bootcamps” that teach STEM-focused skills that are needed to diversify and fulfill current technology jobs. The industry has also courted some controversy, too, with some bootcamps sued for not living up to lofty “job guarantees” or going out of business. Still, accelerated learning and skills training, along with other new models, promise to be an important part of the policy conversation.

5. Free College: Showing ‘Promise’?

With tuition cost increases far outpacing the cost of inflation, and federal student loan debt topping $1.5 trillion, the cost and value of college has become a top consumer issue for higher education. Calls for tuition-free college and enhanced student loan forgiveness have become a growing part of the national discourse around higher education policy, with members of Congress and recent presidential candidates endorsing the idea and several states even moving forward to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for in-state students. For example, the Tennessee Promise program provides two years of tuition-free attendance at a community or technical college for high school graduates.

While it’s unclear whether or not, and how, “College Promise” proposals could work at the federal level and what the cost to taxpayers would be, the proposals have made their mark on the debate.

6. Pell for All Seasons

While the traditional academic calendar begins in August and ends in May, today’s students are increasingly adults, parents and full-time workers who learn year-round. While passed as part of the 2008 reauthorization, year-round or “summer” Pell was first implemented in the 2009-2010 academic year. The original intent was to provide grants to students who had already used up their Pell Grants for the school year, but wanted to take additional courses.

Congress eliminated year-round Pell in 2011 due to rising costs but later restored year-round Pell benefits in 2017—a significant acknowledgment that today’s students need greater flexibility and financial support to complete their degrees. Today, there are even proposals to create “workforce Pell” grants that would enable working adults and other students to use federal student aid for short-term credentials and certificates.

7. Apprenticeships: An Oldie but a Goodie?

Their origins may date back to the Middle Ages, but apprenticeships are getting a fresh look in national policy conversations with interest from Trump administration officials, support from bipartisan members of Congress, and proposals to expand them in Democratic and Republican reauthorization bills. With students, employers and policymakers clamoring for more direct pathways between education and employment, there has been a 20 percent increase in apprentices since 2008. Advocates are optimistic that in today’s workforce, apprenticeships can provide stronger guarantees of relevant, on-the-job training and help close skills gaps.

8. Gainful Employment Rules

Using existing requirements under HEA, Department of Education officials first established “gainful employment” regulations as a mechanism to hold for-profit institutions and some technical colleges accountable for the employment and earnings of their graduates in 2010. However, in 2017, the Trump administration delayed enforcement of the rule and recently proposed repealing it completely, leaving the fate of this important accountability measure in serious doubt.

9. ‘Skin in the Game’

With today’s high borrowing and default levels, students and families sooner or later feel the bite of the high cost of college. Between mounting college costs and a renewed focus on accountability and outcomes, policymakers and advocates are taking a close look at how colleges and universities could put more skin in the game.

Under the current system, students and taxpayers are on the hook when it comes to poor return on investment for student loans, while colleges and universities only feel the effects if large numbers of students default over several years. Finding a balance between individual responsibility and institutional accountability figures to be a key part of the national debate around higher education finance moving forward.

10. Income-driven Headaches

The idea of income-driven repayment—or allowing students with lower earning power to repay loans at a slower pace without penalty—is not new. Income-driven repayment program first became available to borrowers in 1994 as “income-contingent repayment” (ICR) and has since been expanded several times. In 2009, the “original income-based repayment” (IBR) became available for borrowers, and 2014 brought “new IBR”. Now there are currently four plans on the books, each with different requirements and repayment rules.

But income-driven repayment has become an issue as borrowers have found the process for applying to be cumbersome. Each year they must re-enroll and recertify their income to meet the program’s eligibility requirements. Congress may take up proposals to simplify to a standard repayment plan that automatically places all borrowers in the program.