Education policy is about finding solutions – and compromise
One key: Today’s students are older, balancing life and education
The federal Higher Education Act hasn’t been reauthorized since 2008, and with a divided Congress it’s not likely to be taken up this year. But several states are instituting strategies that could eventually be worth replicating.
On the seventh installment of the Lumina Foundation podcast “Today’s Students/Tomorrow’s Talent,” I talk to two Lumina colleagues who understand what’s happening at the intersection of politics and policy: Scott Jenkins, our strategy director for development and advancement of state policy, and Jesse O’Connell, strategy director for federal policy.
Jenkins tells me that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has set a goal—similar to Lumina’s—that 60 percent of her state’s adult residents have a high-quality post-high school credential by 2030. The goal is part of a larger strategy to address a growing talent shortage in the state’s workforce. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also has said that his state will adopt a goal and do some reorganization in support of a new Higher Education Coordinating Council. The council’s role will be to coordinate with all sectors and offer education programs designed to meet state and national needs.
Meanwhile, in Tennessee and Colorado, the newly elected governors are building on their predecessors’ records. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is upping the ante on workforce development, and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is working on closing equity gaps and increasing the attainment rates for students of color, predominantly Latinos.
Jenkins is particularly intrigued by what’s going on in Missouri, where Gov. Mike Parson issued an executive order to have Commissioner of Higher Education Zora Mulligan assume leadership of the state’s workforce agency and its labor management information system. The idea is to develop a single talent-based organization that can give guidance and support to help every potential student continue their education in the state.
“Our workforce-development programs, our higher-ed programs, even some programs through our immigration offices, they’re all driving toward the same thing: developing the talent that’s necessary to drive our economy forward,” Jenkins said.
He added that in the states, there is bipartisan consensus on the need to develop talent. To do that, we need to recognize that today’s student is different from the 18- to 22-year-olds of the past. They’re more likely to be older and often balancing work, family, and educational responsibilities together.
“How do you create a system in which the state incentivizes institutions to serve that particular individual?” Jenkins said. “That’s how states are going to grow the economy—by serving those students who are outside the traditional pipeline.”
On the federal level, Jesse O’Connell said that trying to develop talent is an issue that cuts across party lines. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking members of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, have a strong working relationship. That teamwork was on display when the committee reauthorized a K-12 law that allowed states to provide better education to disadvantaged students, support academic enrichment, and provide services for special education. The law also raised the maximum Pell grant.
“There are clear areas where they don’t agree,” O’Connell said. “But I think it’s reflective of what we all hope for—the best version of federal Washington in which serious individuals can work together, have differences, and still sometimes resolve them.
“Sometimes they have to part ways, but they’re always working toward that same notion of serving all Americans in a way that is grounded in good policymaking.”