President Obama's recent proposals to address the access and affordability issues facing higher education are important and complex. Together, they present a set of initiatives that may significantly influence how colleges and universities manage their costs and prices, as well as monitor educational quality and delivery.
Included among the key elements of the president's plan are:
Full details of the president's plan can be found here.
Higher education has been confronting the challenges of change for a number of years, especially since the recession of 2008 and 2009. College and university leaders, including board members, already realize the imperative of addressing access, affordability, and student outcomes. Their efforts to grapple with such issues have not been, nor need to be, dependent on federal or state policy initiatives. Most institutions and their leadership have been actively engaged in making tough decisions related to fiscal priorities, pricing, investments in academic programs, and educational delivery. Many of the financial problems facing our institutions are tied to the fixed costs of health and retirement benefits, as well as declines in state operating support, in particular for public higher education.
With a public that is demanding a new, less-expensive approach to obtaining a college education and a student body that is focused on jobs, the new proposals will require careful consideration. The president's call for change is a welcome start, but some of the more ambitious aspects of the plan will ultimately require congressional approval -- not an easy hurdle these days -- during the coming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Congressional scrutiny will allow for a more thoughtful discussion of the plan's specifics.
While the politics of the president's proposals play out over the next months, institutional and system boards and CEOs can continue to focus on the implications. Effective collaboration within institutions -- with governing bodies asking the right questions, making and supporting important and, at times, difficult decisions, and even weighing in on the national policy debates in a coordinated approach -- will be essential. Trustee voices at regional policy hearings and in conversation with policy leaders can have a very real impact.
So, as the debate over the president's proposals continues, boards should be working with other institutional leaders and asking appropriate questions, including:
A number of the president's proposed initiatives will be put into motion rather quickly. Others will become part of the political dialogue. AGB will remain on top of those initiatives as more information becomes available, as hearings are held, and as the recommendations are presented to Congress.
Higher education is central to the future of our country -- how it is made available to current and prospective students matters. This is a conversation that requires the participation of board members and other institutional leaders throughout the nation.