Orlando Sentinel: State's higher ed an example of diversity, accountability

Orlando Sentinel

By Kathy Mizereck & Randy Proto | Guest columnists

You have probably read stories about problems in higher education: student debt as the next financial bubble, college graduates working as baristas, law schools deceiving prospective students and more.

What's going on? Economic turmoil, technological change and changing consumer attitudes have converged to stress the system. We're on the verge of a new era. But instead of looking ahead, too many educators, politicians and interest groups react by simply protecting their favored types of institutions, promoting them as the solution to the challenges in higher education.

They're wrong. In higher education, as in most areas, diversity is strength.

We need a fully engaged mix of private-sector, private nonprofit and public colleges and schools — selective and open enrollment — to economically meet our varied needs. Taxpayers can't afford fully subsidized public higher education. Students can't afford private education without effective federal and state systems of financial aid and institutional support.

And, given that the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce found that nearly two-thirds of future jobs would require some postsecondary education, our economy can't afford an inadequate, politicized approach.

Private-sector career colleges — educating more than 300,000 Floridians and more than 3 million students nationwide — are important partners in recrafting higher education. We embrace changing market dynamics and customer (student and taxpayer) needs. We have a clear student-centered vision for the future. It's a vision focused on access, affordability, accountability and effectiveness.

To enable this, we believe legislators and regulators must refine rules in four areas:

First, students need to understand which school best meets their economic, situational and aspirational needs. We need a framework of web-based shopping tools where students can select different schools' programs and see side-by-side comparisons against many key factors affecting value.

Second, all schools should be held to workable, comparable outcomes-performance standards that protect students and taxpayer dollars. Of course, standards need to consider the various values different types of institutions bring. But, having piecemeal or no standards at all is not an option.

Third, to improve student and taxpayer affordability, and maintain variety, legislators and political leaders must be innovative and craft regulations focused on choice and efficacy. Regulations that facilitate tax-efficient, work-force-driven, public-private partnerships would increase capacity in an economically sustainable way. The right rules would enable alternative pathways for students to enter or advance in the work force. They also would expand credit-transfer options, allowing students to achieve their goals faster, at lower cost.

Finally, low-cost content and knowledge accessibility for students is rapidly improving. Some fear the impact of this upon the status quo. But, change is inevitable. Regulators should leap into the 21st century by encouraging, not impeding, efforts to expand the use of technology to deliver instruction. This will both reduce costs and broaden access.

Florida is already ahead of the federal government in these critical areas. In extraordinary bipartisanship, the Florida Legislature has supported progress by unanimously passing HB 7135 — a higher-education accountability act. The act addresses transparency requirements and creates a basis for accountability measures. It's important that it applies to all of Florida's higher-education institutions.

Unfortunately, the federal government has an ever-increasing hodgepodge of burdensome requirements that apply to some less-favored institutions. But students don't care which institutions people in power prefer; neither do taxpayers. Politicians in Washington should take a lesson from Florida legislators. They should scrap selectively applied, dysfunctional standards in favor of universally applied measures.

Our political leaders must create a level playing field, where we engage all colleges in solving our problems. This will enable us to meet the demands of the new era in higher education.

Students and taxpayers deserve no less.

Kathy Mizereck is executive director and Randy Proto is a board member of the Florida Association of Postsecondary Schools and Colleges in Tallahassee.

Direct link to article: http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2012-07-10/opinion/os-ed-higher-education-071012-20120709_1_higher-education-student-debt-open-enrollment

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