The 590-page bill, called PROSPER (“Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform”), is designed to hold students and institutions more accountable for how they use federal loans and aid and to help students complete the education they choose..
Under the terms of the bill, colleges would have to return unused portions of grants and loans if students drop out; colleges would have to provide students more information about career opportunities and offer more work-study choices; students would be allowed to use Pell grants for short-term courses that provide certificates, rather than requiring a traditional academic year aimed at attaining a degree; punitive regulations on for-profit schools would be removed; Pell grant recipients and their schools would be rewarded for taking steps to ensure college completion; competency-based education would be encouraged; and the complex application form for federal student aid would be simplified. Those are just some of the provisions, and the bill will undoubtedly be modified as Congress deliberates throughout the year.
The main designer of the bill is Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Foxx has a doctorate in education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, taught at Appalachian State University, and was president of Mayland Community College in North Carolina.
School Reform News spoke with Rep. Foxx about the bill.
Shaw: Why is this bill important?
Foxx: 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 [now] by talking about lifelong 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 six million [available] 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.
Shaw: Can you respond to criticism you’ve received from academics for emphasizing vocational education?
Foxx: 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.
Shaw: How does the bill give education institutions more skin in the game?
Foxx: 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.
Shaw: What do you say to some who suggests you are neglecting the liberal arts?
Foxx: 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.
Shaw: Do you think you can persuade your colleagues to accept these changes?
Foxx: 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 make 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.
Jane S. Shaw ([email protected]) is School Reform News’ higher education editor.