The New England Council’s Higher Education Committee encompasses a broad spectrum of higher education advocates in the region. The Council counts among its members everything from large private universities to small community colleges; from region-wide policy boards to career development centers serving individual cities; the New England Council brings together members from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives.
In the 21st century a shortage of skilled workers, especially in the fields of science, engineering and information technology, threatens economic growth in the New England and across the country. The New England Council has long advocated for improving access to quality education and increasing the number of skilled workers for our region’s businesses. The Council supports efforts to make more financial aid available to students, as well as investment in improvements to universities and colleges. The Council also works to bring together educators and employers to ensure that our institutions of higher learning are providing students with the skills needed to thrive in the modern workplace.
In recent years, the Higher Education Policy Committee has carefully monitored sweeping changes affecting education and workforce development, including the restructuring of the federal financial aid system, the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law, the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the increasing emphasis on STEM education and its role in bolstering an economically competitive workforce, and competitive innovation grants worth hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding for education in New England.
The Higher Education Committee is co-chaired by Paula Rooney, President of Dean College, and Tim Leshan, Vice President for Government Relations at Northeastern University. The NEC staff contact for the Higher Education Committee is Taylor Pichette.
Promoting College Savings
As the cost of a higher education can present a challenge for many students and their families, the Council supports policies that make it easier to save for college. In July 2016, the New England Council sent a letter to each of New England’s Senators urging them to support S. 2896, The Boost Savings for College Act. This bipartisan legislation would create a tax credit for investments made by low and middle income Americans in a 529 college savings account. In the letter, the Council notes that these accounts serve as a valuable means for Americans to save for education and the tax advantages encourage education savings. This particular legislation would help low- and moderate- income individuals and families who often struggle to save for education. The bill would extend the Savers Tax Credit to contributions an individual or family makes to a 529 account, increasing the savings they can put away for college. It would also encourage employers to match their employees’ contributions and allows for flexibility around these accounts.
The Higher Education Act (HEA), first passed in 1965, provides a range of federal resources to colleges and universities, as well as financial assistance to students across the country. Authorization for the HEA expired at the end of 2013, and in 2014, leaders in Congress began work toward reauthorization of this important federal law.
The New England Council’s Higher Education Committee has closely monitored progress on reauthorization of the HEA, as the law has an impact on every single institution of higher education in New England and beyond. Over the past several years, the Council has hosted several briefings for NEC members with policymakers involved in reauthorization efforts—including Representative Katherine Clark, Deputy Under Secretary of Education Jamienne Studley, and relevant Congressional Committee staff–to ensure members have up-to-date information on the process, as well as an opportunity to provide feedback.
The Higher Education Committee also developed a set of principles outlining the Council’s priorities as Congress considers HEA reauthorization. Top priorities include increased financial aid, simplification in reporting for schools, simplification of the financial aid system for student, and support for alternative learning models. The principles were submitted to the Senate HELP Committee as comments on the draft legislation in August 2014.
The Council continues to closely monitor efforts to reauthorize the HEA and will continue to articulate these priorities to members of Congress as this work continues.
Workforce Development and Talent Pipeline
In September 2015, the Higher Education Committee hosted a Talent Pipeline Forum featuring keynote remarks from Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie Merisotis, who discussed his new book about reform ideas for higher education and workforce development. Merisotis’ book, “America Needs Talent,” calls for government, industry and educators to collaborate to ensure that students are entering the workforce with the skills need to drive economic growth. The event also featured a panel discussion with NEC members –both educators and employers—who have developed successful models for preparing students for 21st century workforce needs.. Microsoft hosted the event at their NERD Center in Cambridge, MA. The forum was well attended by NEC members, including representatives of both higher education and employers.
In August 2013, President Barack Obama unveiled the Administration’s “Plan for Making College More Affordable.” Included in that plan is a new college rating system, to be implemented by 2015. Under this plan, the Department of Education will develop a new ratings system to help students compare the value offered by colleges and encourage colleges to improve, and those results will be published on the College Scorecard.
Early in 2014, the NEC Higher Education Committee met to discuss concerns about this new rating system, and agreed that the collective concerns of the group should be articulated, both to the Department of Education, and to the region’s Congressional delegation. Based of feedback from many Council members, the Council developed a set of principles regarding the implementation of the college rating system. Specifically, the Council’s principles urge the Department of Education to employ careful design and testing, to improve accuracy of data, and to recognize different categories of institutions in developing the rating system.
In May 2014, the Council wrote to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and to the New England delegation to share these principles.
In December 2014, the Department of Education released a draft of the Post Secondary Institution Rating System (PIRS) and sought public comment on the draft. Following further discussion within the Higher Education Committee, the Council submitted comments to the Department of Education in February 2015. It a letter to Secretary Arne Duncan, the Council advised the administration to design and test the rating system carefully, use accurate and reliable data for measurement, and recognize different types of institutions when making comparisons.
As a result of concerns raised by the Council and other like-minded institutions and organizations, in July 2015, the Administration announced that it would not rate colleges, but would rather focus on creating a tool that would provide students and their families with a variety of data to help them make decision about higher education options.
Student Loan Interest Rates
As interest rates for Stafford Loans doubled in July 2013, the New England Council urged members of the New England Congressional delegation to take immediate action to address the increase. As of Monday, July 1, interest rates on federal Stafford Loans increased from 3.4% to 6.8%. In a letter sent to each member of the New England House and Senate delegations, the Council noted that the increase in cost for these loans going forward will affect some seven million students. It is estimated that those who borrow the maximum amount, $23,000 over a college career, will pay about $4,000 more in interest over a standard ten-year repayment plan.
The Council’s letter urged Congress to act quickly and decisively to keep interest rates on these critically important loans as low as possible, and
provide a measure of certainty for both students and for the region’s man institutions of higher education.