Congresswoman Virginia Foxx Shares Insight into New Higher Education Bill

Published April 7, 2018

A massive revision of the federal law governing higher education has been introduced in the House of Representatives. The major designer of the bill is Virginia Foxx, chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Unlike most politicians, Congresswoman Foxx has a broad background in college teaching and administration. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she has a doctorate in education from UNC-Greensboro, taught at Appalachian State, and was president of Mayland Community College in North Carolina. As an associate of the congresswoman said, “It took a teacher to get this going.”

The 590-page bill (called PROSPER for “Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform”) is designed to make students and institutions more accountable for how they use federal loans and aid and to help students to complete the education they choose, whether college or a short-term course.

Colleges will have to return grants and loans if students drop out; students will obtain more information about career opportunities and have more work-study choices; they can use Pell grants for short-term courses; punitive regulations of for-profit schools will be removed; Pell grant recipients and their schools will be rewarded for taking steps to ensure college completion; competency-based education will be encouraged; the complex application form will be further simplified.

Those are just some of the provisions, and the bill will undoubtedly be modified over the next year as Congress deliberates. School Reform News spoke with Congresswoman Foxx about the reasons behind the changes.

Q. What is important about this bill?

This is the first real reform of the Higher Education Act since 1965. Nothing like this has been done before, although, as you know, there have been accretions and additions to the law. The world has changed a lot and postsecondary education has not. We have focused too much on stratifying education, saying that higher education means getting a baccalaureate degree and only a baccalaureate degree. We’re trying to break that down by talking about life-long learning.

People are beginning to think about “postsecondary education,” rather than exclusively higher education. Business people say they cannot find people who have the skills for 6 million jobs. What needs to be done is to acquire the skills to lead a successful life. That may mean getting a certificate, a technical degree, a B. A., an M.A., or a doctorate. We need to help people get the credential they need to begin their careers.

Your first job is not your last job—it is an opening to a career. We don’t do enough to help students get a vision of what they can do in the future.

Q. You have been criticized by some academics for concentrating on vocational education.

Why does anybody get a bachelor’s degree? For a job. It’s what people want. You’ve heard the claim that if you go to college you will earn a million dollars more if you get a bachelor’s degree.

Some who claim to speak for the higher ed community have been disingenuous. Don’t they recruit people with the promise of a good job? Harvard began as a vocational school for ministers. Why does someone want to go to Harvard today? To be able to get a good job. Even with a Harvard degree, students have still got to produce something for their employer.

Q. What is the skin-in-the-game provision?  University systems—mostly public schools, not necessarily the small liberal arts colleges—have a huge washout after the freshman year. Students leave because they are ill-suited to attend college. They shouldn’t have been admitted. We are asking for a sense of responsibility on the part of both the student and the institution. Under this bill, institutions have to pay back some of the debt if students drop out.

Students who go to college are $1.2 trillion in debt. Where is that debt coming from? From people who didn’t complete college. Access to college has been achieved. What is lacking now is completion. Only 56 to 58 percent of college students graduate in six years—that’s the new norm.

Q. Some have suggested you are neglecting the liberal arts.

I was an English major! I wanted to teach in high school but I was too poor to quit working in order to be a student teacher, so I got an A.B. in English, then a master’s, which allowed college teaching under SACS requirements. I’m a real friend of the liberal arts. I’d love everybody to have a liberal arts degree but you’ve got to have skills to get a real job. That’s what’s been lacking.

A Wall Street Journal article (April  24, 2017) reported on how liberal arts schools recognize that students have got to know how to use a computer and turn their skills into something useful. They must come out of college with the ability to do something—not just thinking and writing, but also with other very useful skills.

Q. Do you think you can persuade your colleagues to accept these changes?

My understanding is that all members of Congress are hearing the same things I am hearing: businesses and industries are desperate for skilled employees. This bill provides a focus to meeting that need. My direct experience in education was very helpful in guiding me to making the suggestions for reform but the other members of the committee are on board and will help persuade our other colleagues to push for reforms.