Higher Education Act Reauthorization at 10: More Innovations Since 2008

What a difference ten years makes. Over ten years ago, on August 14, 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act, the last comprehensive reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). The world has changed a lot since then. In 2008, Facebook hadn’t rolled out its “Like” button, Netflix was based on mail delivery of DVDs, and Google Maps, Instagram and the iPad existed only in someone’s imagination. The world of higher education has changed a lot, too.

In an op-ed in EdSurge, India Heckstall and I took a look back at ten key trends—from  performance-based funding and year-round Pell to coding bootcamps and apprenticeships—that have impacted the world of higher education since the last HEA reauthorization in 2008. The response we got to this piece was important. Higher education experts and influencers weighed in with their own additional suggestions about the biggest changes to higher education since 2008. Here are some of the ideas we’ve heard:

1) Blurred lines: institutions and business. In her weekly Re:Learning newsletter, Chronicle of Higher Education senior writer Goldie Blumenstyk got the ball rolling by adding her own suggestion to the list. She pointed to the growing role of the private sector in higher education as another key trend that’s taken root since 2008:

“If I were adding to the list, I’d consider mentioning the growing hybridization of college business models, as online program managers and other companies that share revenues with colleges begin to complicate our notions of what constitutes for-profit vs. nonprofit higher education.”

2) Workforce readiness. While the last HEA reauthorization happened during the buildup to a financial crisis that ultimately cost 8.7 million American jobs, the decade of higher education history that followed dealt with a grueling economic recovery with record unemployment, where students were more concerned than ever about the connection between college and career.  

Former accrediting agency leader Ralph Wolff now heads up an organization called the QA Commons, which is pioneering a new quality assurance framework based on employability and career outcomes. Ralph writes that he views workforce readiness as a major shift post-2008:

“I would also want to add the shift to workforce preparation/readiness as a major theme underlying several of the trends and the concern that higher education is out of touch with the needs of employers – especially in this tight job market. We are trying to address these particular issues with [QA Common’s] Essential Employability Qualities Certification process.”

3) Evidence-based policy. In an era of dwindling resources and increased pressure to drive outcomes, institutional leaders and policymakers have been driven to understand what solutions and interventions are getting the best results in working with students. Travis Reindl of the Gates Foundation* added to the list.

Two things: our students (and what they need) and awareness of what is (and isn’t) working in #highered.

Since 2008, there’s been a growing emphasis on helping institutions identify and scale student supports for the maximum impact with students. Organizations like the University Innovation Alliance, Complete College America, Achieving the Dream and other consortia are working to advance proven practices such as micro-grants for emergency expenses, predictive analytics, success coaching, one-stop student support services and more. At the federal level, there’s also been a similar focus through the work of the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, the First in the World Grants, and other initiatives designed to fund approaches that deliver strong outcomes.

4) Today’s students. To Travis’ second point, this may be obvious, but it bears repeating: today’s students are different than the students of 2008. They come from all walks of life, bringing unique strengths and needs. They are parents, working adults, veterans, and first-generation college-goers, following new pathways to and through higher education. One in three students now take an online course, and fewer than one 1 in 5 students live on campus. They have different career expectations. While the enrollment of part-time and older students has fluctuated over the years, the pathway to earning a degree or credential looks much different today than it did in 2008.

5) FAFSA Simplification. Change isn’t always easy, and there’s no better example of that than the years-long effort to once and for all simplify the process for applying for federal student aid. Since 2008, advocates and institutions have coalesced around making the FAFSA process easier to navigate and finish, as FAFSA completion is still the single biggest predictor of college access for low-income students. Jesse O’Connell of the Lumina Foundation writes:

5) Analytics for student success. Data has been all the rage in higher ed discussions. While the ban on a student-level data network is still intact, institutions are increasingly moving forward. Higher education innovator and former WGU Texas Chancellor Mark Milliron points to the application of analytics as one of the field’s most significant trends:

6) Affordability: beyond tuition and financial aid. Finally, there is growing recognition in the field that improving affordability transcends tuition. Milliron also pointed to what he calls “affordability innovation” and the work of researchers and activists such as Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice who has helped to redefine affordability to include basic needs not covered by tuition. With more students juggling family, work, and academic commitments all at the same time, income, food and housing insecurity have become a crucial area of focus for those looking to make college more affordable.

Thanks to those who shared these additions! Do you have suggestions on what else has changed since 2008 #HEA reauthorization? Share your thoughts with us using the hashtag #HEOATurnsTen or consider authoring a piece for an upcoming issue of Insights & Outlooks.

*Editor’s Note: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides financial support for this publication.