We must improve higher education

Published 4:21 pm Tuesday, September 2, 2014

By U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne

As college football season rolls around, people are starting to show their school pride. From the Crimson Tide to the Auburn Tigers to our newest team, the South Alabama Jaguars, there is a lot of excitement over football season. But is there the same level of excitement for what is happening in our college classrooms?

In lower Alabama, we are blessed with many great institutions of higher learning. Mobile is home to the University of South Alabama, Spring Hill College, and the University of Mobile. We also have Columbia Southern, an online university based in Orange Beach.
For some reason, when we talk about higher education, we too often forget about our state’s strong two-year college system. Here in Southwest Alabama, we have Bishop State in Mobile, Faulkner State in Bay Minette, Alabama Southern in Monroeville, and Jefferson Davis in Brewton.

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I strongly believe that having a flourishing system of higher education is the key to economic prosperity. I can’t stress enough how important Alabama’s institutions of higher learning are to our continued progress on economic development. The top question of any prospective employer is almost always the same: “Does Alabama have the skilled workforce to sustain our business?”

We need the specialty skilled engineers that are trained at our four-year universities, but, just as importantly, we also need the community college-trained specialty workers. One is no more important than the other. Our four-year colleges must work together with our community colleges, and even our high schools, to make sure they are all meeting the needs of the workforce.

That’s why last week I convened a meeting of higher education presidents and administrators from our area to talk about issues ranging from accreditation to paying student-athletes to financial aid reform. As former chancellor of Alabama’s two-year college system, I have always been a strong proponent of higher education, and I understand many of the unique challenges our colleges and universities face.

Currently, Congress is in the process of reauthorizing the federal legislation that governs our nation’s higher education system, known as the Higher Education Act.  The legislation, which was first signed into law back in 1965, requires updating through a process known as reauthorization about every five years. The legislation was last reauthorized in 2008.

As Alabama’s only member on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, I have taken an active role in the reauthorization process. Instead of passing one large bill, we have instead focused on a piecemeal approach of smaller, more manageable bills that address some of the challenges facing our colleges and universities.

From simplifying the federal financial aid process to reducing the accessibility gap, our approach strives to get the federal government out of the way and provide targeted support. Just as with our K-12 education system, our educators and administrators are having to spend too much time complying with federal mandates instead of actually preparing our workforce. I am working to change that culture of bureaucracy.

So, just as our state is known for outstanding performance on the football field, I want us to be known equally as well for our hard work in the classroom. A strong higher education system breeds a strong economy, and that has never been truer than it is today.

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne is the representative for the 1st Congressional District of Alabama, which includes Escambia County.