Changing Perspectives: Behind Higher Education Policy Making

Amid discussions and news about higher education policy and student debt, do you ever take the time to step back? To find a moment to think, “What is driving all this and how will it affect me?” In this post, we will step back and use our panned-out perspective to form a foundation that can help us understand forthcoming legislature.

The words “changing perspectives” have two implications in this post. First, these words mark the change in many lawmakers’ perspectives as they add and alter laws pertaining to higher education. Second, these words express hope to incite change in the perspectives of lawmakers and the public.

Behind Policy: A Desire for Transparency

One of the main focus points at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators’ 2018 National Conference was what underlies law. Attendees (student advocates and lawmakers alike) were reminded not to neglect how they can influence law through shifting viewpoints.

Recent changes in perspectives have led many policy makers to areas of bipartisan agreement. One of most (if not the most) noticeable area in regards to higher education is the widespread desire for transparency. Lawmakers are agreeing on shared intentions to hold institutions accountable to the outcomes of their students’ earned degrees. This will come through more openly circulated information regarding how a university enrolls students, gives financial aid to students, retains students, and supports students after graduation.

As noted in the recap of NASFAA’s 2018 National Conference, the desire for transparency has bipartisan support from lawmakers and student advocates. On the federal side, this information can inform an understanding of an institution’s organization (its strengths and weaknesses), as well as help track possible sources of loan defaults and unfair play. For student advocates, transparency leads to clearer and hopefully more straightforward information to give to students, especially those who incur debt from their education.

Behind Policy: Should Higher Education Be a Public Good?

Is higher education a public or private good? This can be a dividing topic and certainly influences higher education policy making. But think about the questions behind this question. For example, what is the purpose of higher education, and what do we hope it does for individuals and society? If we address higher education for job value alone, then the debate can rage on. But if higher education becomes a goal for people not just to get jobs and make money, but also to further our nation’s thinking, learning, researching, and teaching abilities as a whole, it becomes, in that respect, a public goal and a public good.

Forbes recently published an article titled “The Debate About College Shouldn’t Be A Debate At All.” And, thankfully, the article is not just a platform to proclaim that every person ought to go to university. Instead, the claim is that every person ought to have the choice to go to university – that university and different kinds of vocational education should be viable options for everyone.

What to Do with Changing Perspectives

The first of these two ideas behind policy, the desire for transparency, has been a noticed shift in lawmakers’ focus and direction. The second of these ideas, that higher education is a public good, is more muddled in its acceptance among lawmakers. It is, then, one of those hoped-for shifts among many student advocates. Sharing this perception would help us view student debt as an issue to tackle together, rather than to excuse it as an isolated individual’s problem to figure out.

Ideas, assumptions, goals, and perspectives undergird our laws. As we can see, beneficial student loan-related laws (things we could always do with more of) do not come to fruition by chance. Rather, such laws require attentive and earnest thinkers who find useful ways to better our education system. By understanding shifts in thought that are happening, we can better predict where higher education policy is headed. And, by understanding shifts we would like to happen (but are not yet happening), we can be encouraged to add our voices to the discussion, and to discuss the topics with clearer motivation behind our words.

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