So…What’s the plan?


The Missing Plan for States in the Higher Education Act

As calls for a federal-state partnership in higher education increase and discussions around state incentives continue,  federal lawmakers should use this reauthorization opportunity to include a new state plan requirement in the Higher Education Act (HEA).  In most of the major federal statutes governing the American education system (i.e., the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), etc.), there is a requirement for a state plan—an articulation of how the state will use federal funding to improve an aspect of the system.  While the requirements range in scope and size across the various statutes, if used effectively, they have the potential to bring greater coordination to the system of education as a whole.  The HEA, however, has no such requirement, potentially limiting coordination across the pipeline.  To advance meaningful coordination within the education system, the federal government should implement a requirement for a state plan within the HEA and give states the option to submit a consolidated, early-ed through workforce, plan that would satisfy requirements across the various federal education statutes.

A Plan for Higher Education

With very few exceptions, the Higher Education Act has limited bearing on states.  While the HEA does require institutions be legally authorized to offer post-secondary education in their state before participating in federal financial aid programs, this requirement (known as state authorization) is technically placed on institutions, not states.  The College Access Challenge Grant and Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnerships programs did provide state funding but are now defunct.  The active provisions governing states in the HEA deal with the disclosure of foreign gifts, state grants under the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), reporting requirements and funding under the Teacher Quality Partnership Grant program, and in-state tuition rates for active duty military and their families.  Taken together, these requirements do not add up to meaningful coordination between the federal government and states.  Given this, it is understandable why there might be a lack of coordination between the federal government and states, especially in terms of oversight and planning around higher education in America.

In the other federal education statutes, state plans help to define the role of the states and their relationship with the federal government.  Under those arrangements, the federal government identified a national interest and developed a program to encourage states to address that interest.  Pursuant to those programs, states develop plans for how to address these challenges or interests within their borders.  And since this is usually in exchange for funding from Congress, states also receive the resources necessary to carry out that plan.  In this way, articulated national interests, funding, and a state plan all go hand-in-hand.  For example, under WIA, a state must include in its plan a description of its workforce investment system, a description of the performance accountability system, which includes performance measures, a description of the States’ employment and economic development needs, a description of the employment and training activities to be carried out, as well as a strategy for addressing youth employment.  Under the ESEA, a series of requirements are also placed on states in exchange for funding.  The ESEA also requires States to coordinate their plans for secondary improvement with a wide-ranging list of federal legislation (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006, etc.).  The HEA is not mentioned in this list.

While the Higher Education Act does not currently require a state plan, it used to.  In the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), the precursor to the Higher Education Act, three programs contained requirements for state plans: the Financial Assistance for Strengthening Science, Mathematics and Foreign Language Instruction program, the Guidance, Counseling, and Testing; Identification and Encouragement of Able Students program, and the program for Improvement of Statistical Services of State Educational Agencies.  The NDEA also included a separate section on the administration of state plans for all three programs combined.  Under this section, a state plan could not be approved unless it identified the “State educational agency” as the agency responsible for administering the plan, that the educational agency would comply with whatever reporting requirements the “Commissioner” (predecessor to the Secretary of Education) deemed necessary, and that the plan provided for the proper maintenance and accounting of federal funds.

When the Higher Education Act was passed into law in 1965, it carried general state plan requirements under two programs: a program for Community Service and Continuing Education and a program that created Financial Assistance for the Improvement of Undergraduate Instruction.  Based on the statutory text, these requirements were far less prescriptive than what currently exists under WIA and ESEA; but the delivery and oversight of higher education was still represented as a partnership between states and the federal government, with requirements on both parties to support postsecondary education.

For there to be meaningful state participation in higher education today, we need to change the design of the HEA to better incorporate the role of states.  While another State Postsecondary Review Entities (SPREs) program—a 1990s effort to increase states’ oversight of institutions by providing federal dollars in exchange for that work—may not be politically feasible, more funding should be provided to states to, at a minimum, ensure state coordination with the federal government.  Such funding could be used to encourage better accountability systems within states, increase state financial aid offerings, and, eventually, even require a maintenance of effort for state investment in higher education.  The funding mechanisms could also be used to hold states accountable for meeting the goals they have developed in their plans.

While most states do create some sort of plan for their own higher education systems, these plans do not reflect a federal-state partnership.  Moreover, they lack a national coordinator to help systematically coordinate approaches across states and higher education systems.  A meaningful state funding source and state plan requirement would not only bring greater coordination within higher education, but could address further integration across the educational pipeline as a whole.

A Unified Plan for Education

Congress should streamline the state planning requirements across the various educational statutes into one, unified consolidated plan.  Similar to the consolidated plan requirement in the Every Student Succeeds Act, a state should have the option of submitting one consolidated plan that would satisfy the planning requirements of every component within the legislation—and even within every piece of federal education legislation. This consolidated plan would ease burden on states having to create various, yet valuable, state plans under federal law and cause states and the federal government to treat the educational system as a whole, instead of as disparate parts.