Blogpost: A National Higher Education Agenda and the National Forum by Betty Overton-Adkins, Ph.D.

B_OvertonAs we launch a new academic school year, I realize we are already half way through 2013. At my age, time seems to be flying. I worry we aren’t working fast enough or smart enough at the National Forum to address our goals. One way I try to assess how we are doing is looking at the national higher education agendas and seeing how we are contributing to them. Are we living up to our name? How is the Forum working for “the public good”? While the pace of change may be slow, is the nature of the work we are doing aligned to the types of change that our various audiences see as addressing a national agenda?

The 2013 and the upcoming 2014 U.S. domestic agenda will be primarily shaped by President Obama’s second term priorities. Health care and the economy will probably continue to lead the list of concerns, along with our relations in the Middle East. However, there are a few higher education issues that may come to the fore, including student loan rates and immigration, which has a direct impact on higher education. The renewal of the Higher Education Act will surface, I believe, at some point before the end of 2014 as a focus of conversation for a few, though not at the level of some of these other national issues.
In thinking about a national agenda and our role in that agenda, I was reminded of a list I saw at the beginning of the year setting forth a group of top policy issues for higher education. Published by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the list was slanted toward the interest of public institutions, but having just left a private college, I felt the list was somewhat reflective of issues that might also be of concern at private institutions (though in another blog I want to reflect separately on distinctive issues for private institutions).

The list or agenda included (in ranked order): 1) boosting institutional performance, 2) state operating support for higher education (down from number one for the first time in six years), 3) tuition price and tuition policy, 4) state student grant aid programs, 5) college readiness, 6) immigration, 7) competency-based and online education, 8) guns on campus, 9) consumer protection involving for-profit colleges, and economic workforce development. Of the ten, I was pleased to note the Forum’s recent work has touched on at least five areas. We have been involved in thinking about boosting institutional performance, described as achieving state goals for retention and graduation, and developing and implementing state performance –based funding strategies. Our work funded by Texas Guaranty, we refer to it as the TG2 project, focused on the impact of state funding on minority serving institutions and its inferences about institutional resilience connects performance directly to the resource pool available at institutions to serve underrepresented students. This work also relates to the second agenda item. The new research we are engaging focused on the Loan Repayment Assistance Plans (LRAPs) has a direct relationship to the issues of tuition price and policy. This research is exploring ways some institutions are starting to help students plan for and manage the results of tuition policies and prices. While the involvement at this point focuses on private colleges and universities, we believe the LRAP models may be options also for public institutions. Our involvement with the issues of college readiness has taken the form of work with the Local College Access Networks (LCANS) developing across Michigan. These high school-based college success centers are confronting issues of academic and financial readiness through college prep courses, FASFA completion, and ACT preparation. The goal of this work is to prepare and get more students into college. Some of the work the Forum is best known for is its championing of the issues of undocumented and immigrant students, their access to and support by higher education institutions. This has been a central focus for the Forum for over eight years.

I approached this blog as an opportunity to question whether our work is addressing or adding to one of these articulated national agendas about higher education. I was pleased to find we are. While we can’t tackle all of the issues confronting our industry, we know we have been, in large and small ways, trying to support issues we have identified as “for the public good”; we are contributing but must do more.