Higher Ed and the Feds

Thoughts coming out of the DC Datapalooza.

January 19, 2014

Last week I had the opportunity to spend the day in our nation’s capital, hanging out with higher ed types from across academia, business and government.

The gathering was an Education Datapalooza, organized by officials from the White House and the Department of Education. The idea of a Datapalooza is pretty cool.  

The administration uses its power of convening to bring together people from higher ed, startups, venture firms, publishers, foundations, and government to make commitments to collaborate on tech projects and initiatives.  

These projects, which can be everything from new websites or apps to new businesses, are put together to address cost, access, retention and quality challenges in higher ed.   

The Department of Education and other federal agencies have committed to work closely with groups working to spin up these new projects and sites. One example of this effort was the announcement at the Datapalooza event that Department of Education was looking at ways to develop API’s to access FAFSA data.  

Beyond the interesting projects and initiatives that will come out this Datapalooza, what are some of the larger takeaways we can derive from this latest effort by the Obama administration?

Conclusion 1: Increased Federal Attention and Scrutiny of Higher Education

The conclusion that the Obama administration is focusing on higher ed is of zero surprise to anyone who has been halfway paying attention. My takeaway is that this focus on higher ed will be systematic and deep. Driven by deeply held beliefs in the importance of higher education as an engine of economic growth, rather than any sort of political expediency.  

Conclusion 2: We Have Good Partners at the Federal Level

I’m just getting to know some of the folks who work on higher ed issues at the Department of Education and the White House. The role of the federal government in higher ed is something of a mystery to me. I’m a teaching and learning guy, an edtech nerd. The world of accreditation, student loans, and regulatory compliance is not really part of my higher ed brain.   

Therefore, it has been a pleasure (and somewhat of surprise) to find out how much I enjoy hanging out with people who work for the government.  

The folks that work at the intersection of higher ed and technology issues at the Dept. of Ed and the White House are amazingly knowledgeable about the challenges we face in higher ed.  

They are deeply versed in the edtech ecosystem, with great networks into companies, foundations, and schools.  

From everything that I can see the higher people in the government genuinely want to collaborate with colleges and universities. They want to do whatever they can to help lower costs, improve quality, and lower student debt.  

Conclusion 3: The Administration Needs to Do a Better Job in Communicating Its Strategy

Even after spending some time listening to people in the Obama administration I remain unclear about exactly what non-legislative higher ed policy levers are available.  

Initiatives to better share government data and bring together various higher ed players such as last week’s Datapalooza make perfect sense. Beyond such gatherings, what can the Obama administration do to further its higher agenda without Congress?  

What are the discretionary higher ed policy levers that the various Departments possess? What policy changes need to originate with Congress and what are the purview of the Administration.

How should the Obama administration communicate directly with our community?  

What questions would you have about the role of the federal government in higher ed policy?  

Do you have a good understanding of how the Department of Education is organized?  

What would you like to see in terms of opportunities to learn about the higher ed plans of the Obama administration?  

How can we have an open and collaborative dialogue across the government and higher ed sectors?


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