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Center on Higher Education Reform

American higher education has long been considered the best in the world. But concerns about the cost and quality of a college education, lackluster completion rates, and ballooning student debt have raised questions about the sustainability of our traditional approach to postsecondary education. Can the policies and institutions that served us so well for most of the 20th century answer the demands of the 21st without fundamental reform?  To answer these questions, AEI’s Center on Higher Education Reform (CHER) conducts independent, data-driven research and policy analysis designed to inform policymaking and shape the reform conversation.

A set of core principles will guide CHER’s work

Options and Choice: Students need an array of postsecondary options to choose from and the information necessary to find one that fits their goals, academic needs, and budget.

Shared Responsibility: Just as students must be prepared for college-level work, colleges must be prepared to provide students a high-quality education.

Productivity and Sustainability: Funding and financial aid policies should provide incentives for institutions and students to spend public investments wisely.

Entrepreneurship and Innovation: To bend the cost curve and enhance performance, reformers must rethink regulatory policies that inhibit innovation and limit competition.

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U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at the Credit Union National Association Governmental Affairs Conference in Washington March 11, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

It’s not that student loan programs aren’t generous enough. It’s that the existing protections they offer are poorly designed and difficult to use for the people who need them most.

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Higher education policymakers should look to learn from efforts to ensure quality, accountability, and consumer protection in other sectors.

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Competency-based education, in which credit is provided on the basis of student learning rather than credit or clock hours, is starting to gain traction with educators and policymakers, but many questions about it remain to be answered.

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By doubling down on this troubled model, the President’s plan would spend more without solving the structural problems that plague it.

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If you were listening for new higher-ed ideas in the State of the Union last night, you probably felt like it was 2009 all over again.

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U.S. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about college cost initiatives during a visit to Pellissippi State College in Knoxville, Tennessee, January 9, 2015. Obama wants to make two years of community college free and universally available, a proposal he said on Thursday he would flesh out in his State of the Union speech later this month. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Conservatives should second the president’s point about the importance of postsecondary education, while asking whether those workers would be better served by a centrally managed “public option.”

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The implicit assumption of free-tuition plans is that the main reason students don’t finish community college is the cost of tuition. Not, say, the fact that somewhere around 50-60 percent of community college students are not college-ready, or that many community colleges are not designed with student success in mind.

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As a busy year in higher education policy draws to a close, it’s time to look forward to 2015. What should higher ed leaders and wonks be paying attention to in the new year?

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After years of tinkering and partisan bickering, there are now opportunities for meaningful higher education reform. Congress should not let those opportunities slip away over the next two years.

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The existing higher education system is not narrowing gaps between high- and low-income families; rather, it is widening them.

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