State of the Union preview: How 2015 goals could impact higher ed

What we know and what we hope to learn

Follow @eab_daily at 9:00pm tonight as we live tweet the State of the Union address.

Typically, presidents use the State of the Union address to make big announcements and calls to action.

However, President Barack Obama has flipped that status quo on its head by spending several weeks previewing key points for Tuesday night's 2015 State of the Union address—including a major proposal to make community college free. Here's a roundup of what we know so far, what questions are yet to be answered, and resources for getting started on the president's proposals.

Free community college tuition

  • What do we know?

Obama proposed a plan in early January that would make tuition free at all of the nation's community colleges. Obama set out specific requirements that states, schools, and students would have to meet in order to participate. Under Obama's plan, the federal government would cover 75% of the cost of tuition, but states would have to cover the other 25%. Community colleges would need to offer degrees that are "stackable" or preparing students for high-demand jobs. Students would be required to keep a 2.5 GPA.

  • What's left to address?

Over the weekend, Obama suggested that he plans to fund the program through a tax reform initiative (see below). In Tuesday night's speech, he is expected to release more details about his tax reforms and other ways he plans to fund the cost of free community college.

  • Related reads and resources:
The president's proposal, our take
How SSC for community colleges improves completion rates
Teach new students college navigation skills
Meeting the completion challenge
Are your certificates "stackable"?
What skills and jobs are in demand in your area?

Cybersecurity and student privacy

  • What do we know?

In a speech to the Federal Trade Commission last week, Obama revealed that the State of the Union address will include calls for better cybersecurity and privacy laws. His related proposals include not only the expected crack-down on hackers, but also a request for organizations to alert the government more quickly after a threat to consumer information. Finally, Obama proposed a bill called the Student Digital Privacy Act that would focus on protecting student data at the K-12 level. However, analysts point out that the bill could affect how data on college students is collected and analyzed, since these often rely on K-12 information like high school GPA.

  • What's left to address?

It is not yet clear to what extent the new cybersecurity laws will affect nonprofits or colleges in particular. Colleges suffer occasional hacks and student information leaks, just as companies like Target or Sony do. So it is possible that the new laws will affect the way colleges are required to respond to incidents.

  • Related reads and resources:

How do colleges manage their mass of data?
Why do colleges need to collect student data anyway?
EAB insight: Drive phishing awareness to reduce risk of exposing data
Cyber attacks on colleges, companies prompt many to buy 'cyber insurance'

More paid sick leave for employees

  • What do we know?

Last Thursday, Obama outlined a proposal to increase sick leave for federal employees and encourage more states to implement family and medical leave policies. Obama will also ask Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, which would allow workers at organizations with more than 15 employees to earn up to seven days of paid sick leave per year. Furthermore, the New York Times reports that Obama is expected to ask Congress for $2.2 billion to reimburse up to five states over three years for the cost of implementing paid medical and family leave programs. Furthermore, he is expected to request another $35 million in grants to help states create paid leave programs.

  • What's left to address?

Obama may mention the plan in his State of the Union address. But according to White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, the details about how the federal government will cover the initiatives will come in his budget proposal, which is scheduled to be released in February. We'll also be watching to see how the paid sick leave rules will apply to nonprofits and colleges, specifically.

  • Related reads and resources:

Leave policies and paid time off for staff and faculty
Parental leave policies
Administering the Family and Medical Leave Act

Tax Reform

  • What do we know?

Obama released last weekend the outline of a tax reform plan that would increase taxes for wealthy people and financial firms but expand benefits for low- and middle-income individuals. The reforms could affect higher education by creating funding for Obama's free community college initiative (see above), simplifying higher education tax credits, making permanent the New American Opportunity Tax Credit, and changing the way borrowers are taxed for student debt forgiveness.

  • What's left to address?

Obama is expected to lay out more details of these initiatives in tonight's speech. But the biggest open question is whether Obama will be able to get any of his tax reform proposals through a Republican-led Congress.

  • Related reads and resources:

Higher ed under the new GOP-controlled Congress
Reducing student loan cohort default rates
Increasing efficiency in admissions and financial aid offices
How financial aid programs can increase retention and decrease time-to-degree

(Dwyer, ABC World News, 1/19; Davis, New York Times, 1/13; Kolowich, "Wired Campus," Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/13; Davis, New York Times, 1/14; Levine, Politico, 1/14; Supiano, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/18).

The takeaway: Higher education will loom large in Tuesday's speech, when Obama is expected to outline several policy initiatives that could impact colleges and universities.


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