Four higher education stories to watch in 2015

MOOCs grow up and Republicans take the helm

With Republican gains in government, a pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, and a rebounding economy, 2015 is shaping up to a consequential year for higher education. Here are the issues that education wonks are keeping a close eye in the coming year.

Higher ed gets a new sheriff

With Republicans taking control of both houses of Congress this month, Senator Lamar Alexander's (R –Tennessee) coming chairmanship of the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) takes on added weight.

Alexander has a deep background in education policy, having served as both U.S. Secretary of Education and president of the University of Tennessee, but his policy agenda will likely put him at odds with the White House's education reforms.

For example, Alexander opposes President Obama's upcoming college ratings initiative, which likely presents another obstacle in the White House's plan to link federal funding to outcomes data. Under Alexander's leadership, Republicans may also find success rolling back existing accountability efforts, such the Obama administration's gainful employment rule that ties debt and labor outcomes to federal funding.

Beyond rolling back regulations, Alexander and his Republican colleagues are likely to push for reforms that would make it easier for non-traditional educational enterprises to gain access to federal funding, such as creating alternative accreditation systems.

Cracking down on campus sexual assault

The issue of campus sexual assault took center stage in 2014, and it isn't going away. As of Dec. 24, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is investigating 92 institutions for inadequate responses to sexual violence.

EAB Daily Briefing: Senators push for police involvement in campus sexual assault cases

Given the ongoing scrutiny, policy responses to campus sexual assault issues are likely to gain momentum. For example, both California and New York's public education systems are moving to adopt so-called "yes means yes" affirmative consent regulations, which could be emerging as a new national standard.

Addressing the skills gap

The recession put the skills gap at the top of many colleges' agendas as they sought creative ways to make their students more competitive in the labor market. In 2015, career preparation is still a priority, but a recovering economy and new approaches to career-focused education are likely to add complexity to reform efforts this year.

In the online space, MOOCs are starting to mature after initially disappointing some observers with low completion rates and unclear outcomes. MOOC providers like Udacity now work with employers to design course sequences that lead to certificates in high-demand skills.

EAB Daily Briefing: Five policy gaps hurting career-focused higher education

Career boot camps, such as programs that teach computer programing skills, also grew in popularity last year. In 2015, as these programs continue to expand, there will be new questions about how they fit into the broader higher education landscape.

As with MOOCs, these training programs appear to be in high demand from the public, but it is unclear how regulators will respond to their popularity. Conversations about accreditation, outcomes, and increased competition with traditional education providers are all areas to watch in 2015.

Related: How 'coding boot camps' are succeeding where universities have failed

For-profits down, but not out

The embattled for-profit education industry is coming off a tough year that seems likely to continue in 2015. The sector faces high-profile bankruptcies, new gainful employment regulations, and an emerging ratings system that is likely to judge for-profits harshly.

However, for-profits may find some relief in a lawsuit filed to block the pending gainful employment rules (Lambert, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/21/14; Button, Education Dive, 12/15/14; Miller et. al,  New America EdCentral, 12/30/14; Kelly, Forbes, 12/13/14).


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