Whether at the state or federal level, government policy is critical to the shape of education in America. Governments set direct regulations on the ways that colleges can operate. They also designate local state budgets to improve educational standards, modernize schools, and bring learning opportunities to disadvantaged people. By focusing on equalizing the opportunity for all individuals to get an education, policies can help lower rates of crime and unemployment and improve the overall economy.
Funding Policy at the Federal Level
Federal funding for education was primarily rooted in defense. In 1958 Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act, which gave federal money to educational institutions especially for science education. This was done primarily to keep American scientists and technologies competitive against what was seen as a growing threat from the Soviet Union.
John Kennedy redirected and expanded the conversation of federal education funding with the “New Frontier”, which included policies like the Educational Television Facilities Act of 1962, where the federal government provided grants to create educational television stations that became a staple in elementary classrooms. The New Frontier also expanded money for scholarships and loans designed to improve the quality of teaching and libraries and to reduce the rate of dropouts.
It was not until the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Higher Education Act (HEA), both of 1965, that spending took off. These acts more than doubled federal spending on education to around $8 billion, which then began to flood to public schools to accelerate systemic improvements in the quality of education. The HEA specifically focused on the base creation of the grants and loans that today help students from low-income backgrounds pay for college-level education.
Since then, federal spending on education has continued to grow. The 2016 federal education budget request totaled more than $200 billion in funding focused towards increasing equality, expanding access to early learning programs of high quality, increasing support for teachers, and increasing both college opportunity and college quality. Federally subsidized loans for college students are the largest mandatory program in the Department of Education’s budget. The average Pell Grant award (free money to pay for college tuition and expenses) was $4,700 in the 08-09 school year. In 2015-2016 the average award was $5,700.
Another important flow of federal dollars towards education funding for American citizens is the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill for veterans. Military service has long been a path to school funding, but adjustments made after the September 11th, 2001 attacks have added additional incentives. Some of these changes require additional time in the armed forces over minimum requirements. For example, veterans who have served at least 3 years on active duty get access to 100% funding for 4-year college education at a public university. Veterans who agree to or serve for at least 10 years can transfer the benefits of these provisions to a spouse or children.
Federal funding for education is a robust and active area of government spending. However, much of the policy that directly impacts schools and colleges in a certain area comes from the actions of local state governments.
Funding Policy at the State Level
Most states in America have a state-level department of education that oversees standards and funding for projects at all levels of schooling. After the 2008 recession, local support for higher education fell—and to deal with this decrease in funding, colleges and universities increased their tuition to make up for the difference. In 2014 $86 billion was allocated by states for funding in higher education, but this is still far behind pre-recession levels. According to a report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO), a liaison between states and the federal government for educational policy analysis, more than 76% of that $86 billion went to operating expenses of public higher education institutions while about 8% went to financial aid for students attending those institutions.
State spending on education is currently much lower compared to the past. The Student Impact Project launched an initiative to assign an A through F grade to each state that reflects its level of commitment and support for higher education. Their analysis and ranking methodology covers several different points including tuition, state budget appropriations, and the typical family contribution in the state. In their report, only four states—Wyoming, New York, Alaska, and Oklahoma—were worthy of an “A” grade for their overall educational support. 23 states received grades of either “D” or “F”. The worst-scoring state was New Hampshire, which spends the least amount of money per student while having the highest average tuition in the country.
The landscape for local funding varies widely from state to state. Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship created in 1993, and Florida’s Bright Futures Scholarship created in 1997, both serve as successful models of how specifically helping above-average students attend in-state colleges can have widespread rewards and impacts on local educational systems. These kinds of state-run programs typically only cover bachelor’s degrees, and graduate-level support is much thinner.
If you want to know what’s going on in your state at the policy level when it comes to opportunities for post-secondary education funding, check with your local department of education or career resources center.
Distance Learning Policy
The relative novelty of accessible, user-friendly distance learning technologies and programs means that only a few states have managed to create laws that distinguish online education from other forms of learning. “e-Learning” as it is popularly dubbed, is viewed with varying degrees of importance by each state. Places like Utah, Florida, and Georgia have passed legislation in the last 10 years designed to give K-12 students more options and opportunities using online modes of education.
Probably the single largest barrier to the proliferation of online learning policy is infrastructure. How do you build a singular platform where all e-learning actions can be coordinated and organized? How do credits in online systems transfer to brick and mortar universities? Who establishes accreditation standards and ensures that they are upheld? How is data kept safe? How much should such a system cost? Most physical universities incorporate some element of online learning into their programs—should this mode of education be mandatory, implemented in a smaller scale among high schools?
There are a lot of moving parts in the discussion of e-learning policy, but it is only a matter of time before technology and the preferences of younger generations guide decisions in a significant way. Policymakers around the country are engaged in active research and assessment of innovations in online learning. In Washington, for example, high school students must be furnished with the latest information about online learning that details the benefits and disadvantages as part of a running start effort in the pursuit of post-secondary education.
Between the growth of alternative online learning providers like Coursera, the growth of universities offering some courses or even full programs online, and the popularity of OpenCourseWare initiatives, states which haven't begun to address online learning yet will soon have to. White papers, briefs, and conferences on these topics have been pushing policy on this front steadily forward over the past few years, and that pace is accelerating.
Though it is overseen by non-government organizations, accreditation nonetheless plays a crucial role in policies surrounding institutions of higher learning. Accreditation is a process by which an educational institution like a university or a technical college gains industrial and general approval for the quality of its curricula. Degrees from institutions that pass an accreditation process are the ones that employers care about most, since generally an accredited degree means that the degree holder has a baseline level of knowledge accepted by an industry as the “standard.”
Accreditation is like a stamp of approval—it requires an educational facility to maintain the quality of its programs and offerings at the risk of losing that privilege. Most of the time, simply having institution-wide accreditation is not enough. Lots of colleges will go through the process of getting individual programs (like business or engineering) accredited as well. Accredited schools and accredited programs within them, since their graduates are more attractive to employers, also attract more students.
The most important type of accreditation for an institution to have is regional. Regional accreditation indicates that the school has undergone review by one of the seven regional organizations recognized by the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). This review process consists of peer review of the school’s overall operations by fellow educators and administrators, ensuring that it has the facilities and resources to provide a quality education.
While not as essential as regional accreditation, subject accreditation often earns a degree some additional prestige among employers in a specific field. For some programs, subject accreditation is practically essential, as more advanced degree tracks or employment opportunities require a degree from a school with this type of accreditation. Organizations like the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) perform these rigorous reviews. They follow the same general structure as regional accreditation peer review, but go much more in depth and focus only on individual programs within a university. A good rule to note is that the more technical your degree is, the more value subject accreditation holds in relation to job prospects.
Other Forms of Accreditation
Some institutions will claim to be “nationally accredited.” This usually applies to schools that cover vocational topics like fire science or electrical work, rather than schools which provide bachelor's degrees or paths to academia. If you find a school touting typical programs like business and liberal arts with “national accreditation,” you should approach the school with some healthy skepticism. Seek out reviews from multiple sources.
Online schools sometimes have national accreditation from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC), formerly known as the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) and sometimes still referred to by this name. Whether this form of accreditation matters varies from employer to employer and school to school. While CHEA recognizes the organization, many schools elect not to take transfer credits from schools accredited by the DEAC, and some employers may view the degree with skepticism. A DEAC-accredited school may be right for you, but do some research about your long-term plan first.