When the 116th Congress is seated in January, political control will be divided, with Democrats holding a majority in the House and Republicans in the Senate. What does this mean for higher education? We asked a few NAS members to weigh in. Other articles in the series are, Focus on Reining in the American Bar AssociationTime to Found a New University, and Work on Federal Student Aid Reform and Free Speech.

Reform by Executive Order

With the retaking of the U.S. House of Representatives by the Democratic Party, resulting in a divided Congress, it is very likely that reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (last reauthorized in 2008) will have to wait at least another two years.

If Congress is therefore out of the picture regarding higher-education reform, the administration has three other means of advancing its reform agenda: (1) Department of Education regulations; (2) presidential Executive Orders; and the president’s “bully pulpit.”

Through either Department of Education rulemaking or a presidential Executive Order, there is still reform that can be accomplished, although it cannot be as extensive—nor should it be in a representative democracy—as could be achieved through Congressional reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Here are some of the reforms that might be accomplished in this manner:

  • Further simplification of the labyrinthine process through which students receive federal loans and grants.
  • Further elimination of barriers to education through reform of the college accreditation process, which too often has impeded needed innovations.
  • Increasing transparency regarding the extent of student-loan debt by major and college. Total student-loan debt stands at roughly $1.5 trillion, which exceeds total national credit-card debt.
  • Increasing the transparency of college transcripts through requiring “contextualized transcripts,” which, unlike current transcripts, provide fuller information to prospective employers regarding each student’s relative competency. This transparency measure would alleviate somewhat the negative workforce-development effects of rampant grade inflation in college. In the 1960s, 15 percent of all college grades nationwide were A’s. Today, an A is the most common grade given in college (45 percent). Grade inflation has nearly completely robbed college transcripts of any meaning; contextualized transcripts would restore some needed clarity.
  • Requiring all Title-IV-receiving public colleges and universities to enforce the First Amendment on campus. The nonpartisan free-speech watchdog, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), finds that over a third of colleges and universities have official policies that directly violate the First Amendment, which public colleges and universities are legally bound to enforce.

All of the above measures would require the support of the president’s bully pulpit, in response to which there appears to be a ready audience among the American people. Recent polling demonstrates a significant decline in Americans’ confidence in higher education. Hence the use of the bully pulpit could further galvanize an American populace that is coming to recognize on its own that, today, too many college students are paying too much, and learning too little.