Lawmakers Look for Fresh Ideas at Senate Hearing on the Higher Education Act

Posted By Derek Johnson on July 31, 2015 at 2:45 pm
Lawmakers Look for Fresh Ideas at Senate Hearing on the Higher Education Act

With a bipartisan consensus brewing that the current higher education model is obsolete, universities and policymakers are looking for new ideas to reign in costs and better serve the modern student. During a hearing last week, lawmakers working on an update to the Higher Education Act explored some of the ways in which the current system is outdated – and what can be done to encourage greater innovation in higher education.

For his part, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the committee overseeing reauthorization of the HEA, was open about his view that the rules governing Title IV federal funding were putting higher education institutions in a box and discouraging innovative practices. He said that universities today are scared to try new things for fear that doing so will put them out of compliance with federal regulations and jeopardize the millions they receive in federal funding and student aid. Alexander wants to open up funding to a broader array of institutions and allow existing universities to experiment with different learning models.

“There are many new learning models that are entering the landscape, thanks to the Internet. We need to consider what role they play in our higher education system, and whether financial aid ought to be available to students who are learning outside our traditional institutions,” said Alexander in his opening statement.

Senator Pattty Murray (D-WA), the ranking Democrat on the committee, indicated that her party was willing to entertain some measure of reform. However, she warned that the higher education system suffers from many ills, and that bad actors already benefit in some areas from an under-regulated environment.

“Simply opening up access to federal student aid without any accountability for any company or institution that offers an alternative to traditional higher education would fail to protect consumers, ” said Murray, who cited the recent Corinthian Colleges scandal as an example.

Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, pointed out in his testimony that the HEA, passed in 1965, was designed for a completely different kind of student than the one that populates campuses today.  In 1965, only 10 percent of Americans over the age of 25 had college degrees, compared to 32 percent today. The student body is more diverse as well, with more adults, minorities, military veterans and low-income students attending college today than when the act was crafted.

“Today’s student is nothing like the student that the 1965 law and most of its subsequent iterations, or really higher education in general, was designed to serve,” said Merisotis.

Mersotis recommended three changes to the current system: recognizing a wider array of post-secondary providers, restructuring the system to focus more on quality and outcomes rather than time spent in the classroom, and “demystifying” the student aid process so that students can have an accurate sense of how much their degree will actually cost.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was skeptical that opening up federal funding to online and other lower-cost higher education models would lead to lower prices for students, arguing that many institutions would simply pocket the cost-savings themselves.

“If we reduce regulatory costs for college, those savings must be passed on to our students, and right now, colleges won’t commit to doing that,” said Warren.

Dr. Barbara Gellman-Danley is president of the Higher Learning Commission, one of the six regional accrediting agencies that are supposed to provide quality control for colleges and universities. During her testimony, Gellman-Danley acknowledged some of the criticisms that accrediting agencies have faced over the years and urged the committee to provide agencies with more flexibility in considering new approaches.

“Good innovation cannot be legislated. It takes place when government steps back and lets creative people do what they do best. I urge the committee to develop reauthorization that allows for innovations that we cannot possibly predict today, so we don’t prevent them from being created in the future“

Gellman-Danely said her organization is interested in approving more Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and competency-based learning programs, but that accreditors must also ensure that these methods actually provide students with the skills needed to succeed.

“We cannot, however, support a rush to fulfill greater needs for enrollment, to fill the budget gaps, simply on the face of what may be smoke and mirrors of innovation.” Gellman-Danley said.

Dr. Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, argued that schools are constrained by current regulations dictating federal student aid. Many rules that determine whether a school is eligible to receive federal funding are tied to time-based measurements, such as time spent in classrooms, which make other approaches unfeasible.

“Virtually all Title IV rules for disbursement of aid are tied to times. So innovative programs trying to have learning trump time still have to grapple with technical rules around satisfactory academic progress, term structures, definitions of full-time and other time-based rules that constrain program design and make no sense for what people are trying to do. Time is a poor proxy for actual learning and quality. “

Alexander has said that he hopes to have a bill ready to be put on the Senate floor for a full vote by the end of the year or beginning of 2016.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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