WASHINGTON -- As the Obama administration held what could be the last in a series of gatherings about stimulating innovation in higher education, Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell made it as clear as he could (without actually saying so) that it may be up to college leaders and others to ensure that efforts to expand postsecondary opportunity -- and experimentation with new ways of delivering it -- remain central for the next four years.
In comments to a White House-sponsored event Tuesday and in an interview with reporters, Mitchell -- citing "protocol and etiquette in service of a strong transition" -- noted repeatedly that he was "not in a position to speculate" about how an administration led by Donald J. Trump might approach higher education policy.
Mitchell acknowledged that the election was the "elephant in the room," and that fact gave the event the feel of a valedictory -- and at times a wake. With many advocates for postsecondary access and success concerned that their issues will (best case) be a low priority for the new administration, or (worst case) that it might roll back much of what the current administration has done to spur college-going and experimentation with new models of education and training, Mitchell exhorted them to take things into their own hands.
"As we leave this administration and leave government in the hands of others, I wanted to make sure this community recognizes the strength among you and between you," Mitchell told the college leaders, higher education technology advocates, policy makers and others attending Tuesday's gathering at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. "We innovate because we feel dissatisfied with the way doing things the old way results in ineffective outcomes."
In the conversation with reporters later, Mitchell described "the community" he was speaking about as part of the "postsecondary opportunity crowd" that has embraced the Obama administration's multifaceted push for more Americans with post-high school credentials, for more equitable postsecondary opportunity and for more experimentation. He acknowledged that the "crowd" comes in "a lot of different flavors," and that's an understatement.
Many people in traditional higher education have overwhelmingly supported administration policies that increased financial aid for students, equity for underrepresented students, and postsecondary access and completion broadly. They've been far less enamored of the administration's attempts to tighten regulation and hold colleges accountable for their students' economic outcomes. And many college leaders (and especially faculty members) have decidedly mixed feelings about the administration's various initiatives promoting "innovation," especially to the extent that they have opened the door to alternative providers and sometimes seemed to define "innovation" mainly as technology about which many professors are skeptical.
At Tuesday's event, "Sustaining the Momentum for Innovation in Higher Education: Increasing Equity by Reducing Costs and Strengthening Quality," Mitchell offered words that many of the department's skeptics in higher education might have appreciated. Noting that some people are quick to caricature higher education as an industry stuck in the 18th century, Mitchell said, "Guess what? Higher education is one of most dynamic, innovative portions of our economy and our civic society."
In the conversation with reporters, he specifically praised efforts that have emerged from within traditional higher education to accelerate changes in how students are educated, such as the University Innovation Alliance, a coalition of public research universities that have sought to re-engineer themselves to dramatically increase college completion.
"We have seen increased willingness from more traditional institutions to embrace an innovation agenda," he said. "They seem to realize that innovation doesn't mean burning down everything to fix it."
Asked whether critics of higher education -- including some within the administration -- had also come around to the view that mainstream higher education could meaningfully transform itself, he was more equivocal. While higher education might be able to do much to change itself, Mitchell said, he and the administration had taken the approach that more and better alternatives to traditional institutions were needed.
He cited the Education Department's new EQUIP program -- in which traditional colleges and universities team with nontraditional providers and accrediting bodies to experiment with ways to free up federal financial aid for noncollege job training -- as one sign of the administration's "yes and" approach, signaling that traditional higher education can and will adapt to remain essential, but may not by itself be sufficient.
Mitchell vowed that he and others in the Obama administration planned to "sprint through the tape" (that's a track and field phrase, for those of you who aren't familiar with it) for the 65 days that remain before Trump takes office. He said the current Education Department staff was "rushing to get things out the door" before it closes behind them, although he wasn't specific about all that might entail. "We've had this clock ticking for some time, and have a punch list of things we're continuing to do," Mitchell said. (The department did announce a new "open challenge to redesign higher education" with the design thinking organization IDEO Tuesday.)
He politely rebuffed numerous questions from reporters on what might happen to the administration's various initiatives if -- as many of the people at Tuesday's meeting privately said they feared -- Trump administration officials (and Republicans in Congress, if they fill a vacuum) either completely lose interest in issues of higher education completion and innovation, or actively reverse course.
Republicans have criticized some of the ways the Obama Education Department has used its "experimental sites" authority, for instance, and when a reporter speculated that a Trump administration (or Republicans in Congress) could seek to end some of the experiments by canceling three-year agreements with individual institutions, Mitchell seemed unnerved. "Our hope is that they will continue," he said.
Mitchell also acknowledged the possibility that a Trump administration could change the balance in the other direction, encouraging more experimentation with educational alternatives without as much concern for the potential risk that substandard institutions pose to students.
"I can't speculate," Mitchell said. "I can say that this administration has tried to balance the opening up of nontraditional providers with protections for students."
Ultimately, Mitchell said, the Obama administration did not create the push to improve higher education -- we "came into the innovation stream while it was already flowing," he said -- and anybody who pays attention to the facts on the ground (the fact that Americans in the top income tier are seven times likelier than those in the bottom tier to get a college degree, that 30 percent of minority students drop out before the end of their second year, etc.) will realize that much more work needs to be done.
"I am completely confident that the community in there [a reference to the 250 people gathered in the Reagan building] will continue to confront those facts on the ground," and keep pushing to find ways to increase college-going and postsecondary outcomes, he said.
Was he equally confident that a Trump administration would do the same, Mitchell was asked. Protocol and etiquette stopped him from saying.
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