Open Letter To Incoming Secretary Of Education John King Jr.

Dec 3, 2015 by

Mr. Secretary:

I offer my congratulations on your appointment as Secretary of Education. As the president of an independent, non-profit college, I welcome the prospect of a fellow educator leading the department during such a decisive time in our nation’s history.

Thanks to the work of your predecessor, and President Obama, education has been front and center on the nation’s agenda for the past seven years. The connection between a postsecondary educated workforce and economic prosperity has been clearly shown, as have weaknesses in our current K-20 system – a first step toward corrective action.

Under the current Administration, the department has become more open to innovation. Direct assessment, competency-based learning, prior learning assessment and various alternatives to time-based classroom instruction are now considered for Title IV financial support. The department’s willingness to experiment and take new approaches to increasing access and completion is refreshing. So, too, is the renewed focus on community colleges. Enrolling more than half of all students, these institutions are doing an incredible job with limited resources and the burdens that come with a less than stellar secondary system.

In addition, Secretary Duncan and Undersecretary Mitchell are to be applauded for opening new pathways to employment under the recently announced “Educational Quality through Innovative Partnership (EQUIP) Program,” as well as for the collaborative manner in which this was developed.

Mr. Secretary, under your leadership, I look forward to more of these cooperative efforts in the future.

With that in mind, I offer three additional areas for consideration.

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  1. Creating a “big tent.” With over 111 million workers without a degree, and traditional higher education institution showing little interest in adult learners, post-traditional institutions must play a larger role than ever. However, recent efforts by the Department to crack down on “bad actors” in the for-profit industry has effectively cast a shadow on non-profit and public distance learning institutions as well, as evidenced by some of the language and positions of those on the 2016 presidential campaign trail.A more nuanced approach would help protect students and taxpayers, while opening up the higher education tent to include non-traditional institutions with a history of success and whom have shown a commitment to transparency on learning outcomes, time to completion, persistence, graduation rates, and other performance expectations.
  2. Lessening the regulatory burden. The hundreds of new rules and regulations issued since 2008 have left some of us feeling like we have been bird hunting with Dick Cheney. While for-profits have been intended target, as mentioned previously, all of higher education is still feeling the birdshot. I offer State Authorization as an example. Requiring all institutions, public or private, for profit or non, to meet the requirements of 54 separate jurisdictions (50 states, 3 territories and the District of Columbia) as a condition of serving students on a national basis has added millions in new costs and, as a result, reduced access – the exact opposite of what we all want. And, we have yet to know what problem was solved by this law. Expanding “Gainful Employment” to the nonprofit and public sector – as some have proposed – would exacerbate this problem.
  3. Transparency on costs. Despite the rhetoric of some critics, the cost of education is not at the sole discretion of college administrators. Beyond the additional regulatory burdens mentioned above, since the onset of the Great Recession, public institutions (70% of all college enrollments) have had to raise tuition and fees to offset cuts made by their state legislatures (in all 50 states). And losses attributed to double-digit growth in the cost of health care, software licenses, library journal subscriptions, travel, and consultant expertise (consultants for accreditation, legal issues, financial aid compliance, etc.) must be accounted for by all institutional CEOs on the operational side of the ledger.

As a college president, I expect to be held accountable. However, the heads of the 7,000 institutions which are currently eligible for federal Title IV aid have not simultaneously abandoned their responsibility as institutional stewards. Rather, we are forced to deal with an increasing number of expenses over which we have little to no control. By acknowledging these realities, we can begin to seek out common sense solutions that target root causes rather than effects.

Mr. Secretary, I outline these specific areas to illustrate the complex nature of the challenges that lie ahead. As with your predecessor, you have been consistent in your call for outcomes over inputs and for greater attention to quality assurance. These are ends upon which the department and all higher education institutions can agree.

Finding the best way to get there, that’s our joint challenge. One, I and other college presidents look forward to working with the Department on together.


John F. Ebersole, LPD

President, Excelsior College

John Ebersole is the president of Excelsior College and an outspoken champion of adult learners, online education, prior learning assessment, and workforce development, among other issues.

Source: Open Letter To Incoming Secretary Of Education John King Jr. – Forbes

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