Three state-based higher education reform initiatives

As congressional Democrats debate amongst themselves how many new trillions the federal government should spend, it is becoming increasingly clear that, as my colleague Beth Akers put it, “many of the progressive dreams of the primary, including free college, [are coming] to a screeching halt.”

This is good news for those who favor a market-oriented approach to higher education reform. But in the near term, it will be up to state legislators and policymakers — not Congress or the Department of Education — to take concrete steps toward a more efficient system of higher education. To that end, AEI’s Conservative Education Reform Network recently published a report by Michael Brickman, “The missing element in education reform: State-based policies to improve postsecondary outcomes.

Brickman argues that earlier state reform efforts “have too often been incremental rather than transformational, reactive rather than proactive, and lacking in the type of cohesive framework and vision often seen in K–12 education reform.” His report outlines three areas where proactive reform could re-orient higher education.

First, state leaders have a variety of tools at their disposal to fight credential inflation. Brickman notes, for example, the lack of robust evidence justifying requirements or bonuses for master’s degrees for K–12 schoolteachers. If state leaders eliminated requirements or bonuses for teachers to obtain master’s degrees, it would not only stop wasting money — it would also help to hedge against diploma inflation. Brickman also argues that states can and should shift focus in professional licensure from credentials to competencies. Utah, as one example, took a step in the right direction by allowing its state licensing bodies to allow applicants to accept a competency-based licensing requirement. Brickman argues that other states should follow and extend Utah’s example.

Second, Brickman argues that state leaders clarify community colleges’ missions. Many community colleges are now re-orienting to promise students a cheap on-ramp to four-year bachelor’s degrees, or offering more bachelor’s degrees themselves. Brickman argues that this shift risks “distracting such institutions from their core mission” of providing workforce-relevant training and skills. He argues that states should require students pursuing associates degrees to choose a concentration tied to an industry-recognized credential. A student could be required, for example, to choose a 12-credit concentration (e.g., one yielding a Google IT certificate) while being free to put remaining credits toward liberal arts subjects.

Finally, state leaders should recognize that they have the power to make policy decisions to ensure that universities are well-tailored to workforce needs. Indeed, “states must work with universities to have candid, forward-looking conversations about which programs are necessary and which are not.” Brickman recommends governors appoint a state task force to examine duplicative programming, better align academic offerings with employer demands, and evaluate the returns on investment of various offerings.

The Obama administration attempted to use a (since rescinded) federal “Gainful Employment” regulation to shutter programs (in for-profit colleges only) that burdened graduates with high debt and little economic benefit. Although Brickman stops short of directly recommending that state policymakers review programs with an eye toward shuttering low-performers, I’d argue that as stewards of taxpayer dollars and overseers of higher education, they have a duty to consider doing so.

If, as expected, the Biden administration’s free college agenda stalls, states will have some time and space to consider substantive reforms to their higher education systems that may actually pass and come at a lower cost to taxpayers. The time is ripe for state-based higher education reform to drive better outcomes for students and employers.

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