Navigating the Curriculum – Public Policy Issues

J. James Wager, Consultant & Education Strategist

February 22, 2018

This recent series of articles has examined multiple curricular issues and their impact on student success.  Not all these issues are within the direct control of the Registrar, but in most cases the Registrar’s office either has direct responsibility for shaping policy or is responsible for implementing curricular policy.  As this series completes, it is worthy to highlight external public policy issues that are shaping and changing curricular requirements.

Affordability, Financial Aid, and Student Debt

There is an obvious inverse relationship between affordability and student debt.  Financial Aid provides leverage that changes the tipping point between these two issues.  Ranging from discussions of increased levels of student aid to free education, public policy issues continue to dominate this triumphant of financial issues.

College Affordability policies have come in various forms such as reducing tuition levels for in-state students, maintaining tuition to prior year levels, capping tuition increases to minimal amounts, and holding tuition constant for 8-semesters starting with the student’s first enrollment.  Other affordability initiatives have focused on reducing the costs of textbooks, free course material for online courses, tax-friendly savings plans, pre-paying tuition at the current rate, and even providing food assistance to students.

Student Debt initiatives have recently emerged enabling some students to minimize their levels of indebtedness.  Several states offer tax credit benefits to students that remain and work within the state.  Other states are assisting the student to refinance loans at reduced interest levels.  Multiple programs have emerged that provide counseling programs for delinquent borrowers, new requirements for lenders to inform the borrower of the total repayment cost, and pre-borrowing simulation models to help the borrower understand the implications of increased loans and repayment options.

Financial aid initiatives remain important initiatives at both the federal and state levels.  The federal Higher Education Act, created in 1965, is the cornerstone of the federal government’s commitment to higher education.  This law is regularly reviewed, or “reauthorized” by Congress whereby the details of federal student aid levels, programs, award criteria, and other stipulations are legislated.  A reauthorization cycle is currently active in Congress.

At the state level, legislation has primarily focused on free community college programs, providing incentives to students to successfully complete their first-year, and providing support for students to complete their degree program. 

Federal, State, and Local Funding

Federal funding is primarily focused on individual students through grants, loans, and research projects.   Reauthorization of these programs can result in dramatic shifts in the student’s ability to pay for attendance.  State funding generally provides direct support to the operation of public colleges and universities; demographic shifts and associated tax revenues continue to challenge to opportunity to maintain state level funding.  Local funding, while much less significant than federal and state funding, largely supports the operations of local community colleges.

Dual Enrollment

Nearly a dozen states have enacted legislation aimed at strengthening the high school experience to complete post-secondary credits at reduced, or at no additional costs.  For example, Illinois has implemented a pilot program between high schools and local community colleges which waives tuition for the high school student enrolled at the community college.  Idaho is providing scholarships, up to $8,000, to students completing post-secondary credits while in high school. 

Other states are utilizing dual enrollment programs to enable high school students to earn post-secondary certificates, or in limited examples, associate degrees.  Indiana has implemented legislation focused on high school teachers, enabling them to complete a master’s degree through their teaching of approved post-secondary certified high school courses.

Student Success

Student success is not just a buzz word.  Enabling students to achieve their academic goals has become a legislated priority in many states. Some of these initiatives include: increasing college participation, financial guidance, provide mentoring and peer-support programs, financial relief for homeless students, and mandated credit transfer.  While many individual schools have implemented their own student success initiatives, the adoption of public policy issues by legislative action is significant.

Workforce Development

The need to provide an equipped workforce to meet the demands of the local economy is not new; initiatives at the local, state, and national levels have been in place for many years.  However, there has been significant growth in new opportunities for both employers and post-secondary schools to enable a stronger workforce.  In some states, this has been supported by direct tax credits to employers.  Other states are financing collaborative efforts between schools and employers to fill gaps in the availability of a technically trained workforce.  


Accreditation is a cornerstone process within the U. S. higher education system.  The accreditation process is managed and implemented by organizations such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, regional accreditation commissions such as Middle States Commission on Higher Education, and dozens of faith-based and programmatic based accrediting organizations.  The accreditation of schools is performed to assure students and the public of educational quality, institutional accountability, innovation, and quality improvement.  

Within recent years there have been multiple, and ongoing, attempts to correlate the accreditation process to the awarding of financial aid.  The rationale has been to leverage the school’s educational quality, as measured by student success, to the awarding of future student aid levels.  These discussions have been highly controversial with strong voices on both sides of the argument.


In recent months, numerous states have passed legislation requiring appointed members of governing boards to engage in professional development training.  The intent behind these legislative initiatives has been to improve the capacity of these board members to effectively conduct the duties and responsibilities related to their governance role.

The length and content of this training varies across states.  Typical topics include:  Labor Law, Open Meetings Law, Freedom of Information, ethics, Contract Law, campus sexual violence awareness, audits, financial oversight and accountability, and fiduciary responsibilities. 

The Higher Education Value Proposition

The cost of tuition has been increasing at a rate that exceeds the pace of salaries and wager.  Student debt continues to increase leaving graduates with both a diploma and a large financial loan liability.   This reality has received strong media coverage, which has generated a negative public bias against the academy. 

Reducing costs requires innovative solutions.  Support services can be more efficient, and more effective, by outsourcing.  Manual processes can be improved and streamlined through the adoption of appropriate technology.  Simplification of the curriculum can be accomplished without any reduction of the quality of the educational experience.

Schools can increase their value proposition by continually finding new ways to connect to their students, parents, and alumni.  For traditional learners, non-traditional learners, and returning learners, it is important to deliver the programs students need to enter and advance in the workforce.

Curricular issues are complex and reach most aspects of the enrollment management continuum.  Registrars paly a vitally important role in setting the school’s position in reverse transfer, the evaluation and acceptance of credits and courses, helping students make informed enrollment decisions, and shaping public policy decisions.

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