Alexander: Washington Should Stop Discouraging Colleges and Universities from Innovating, Consider Ways to Embrace Models that Aren’t Traditional Colleges

Chairs Senate education committee’s 6th higher education hearing this Congress to discuss encouraging innovation in higher education

Posted on July 22, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 22 – Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today said Washington needs to stop policies that discourage traditional colleges and universities from innovating—if it wants to increase the number of Americans with college degrees and meet the needs of today’s workforce.

“Congress needs to help colleges and universities meet the needs of a growing population of today’s students—one that has less time to earn their degree, wants flexibility in scheduling their classes, and needs to start earning an income sooner. And Congress may also need to consider new providers of education that don’t fit the traditional mold.”

The chairman’s prepared remarks follow:

Clark Kerr, the former president of the University of California, wrote in his 2001 book, “The Uses of the University” that of 85 human institutions founded before 1520 and largely unchanged today – about 70 are universities.

As for the other 15 institutions—well, among them are the Catholic Church, and the Isle of Man.

Kerr wrote: “Universities are among the most conservative of all institutions in their methods of governance and conduct and are likely to remain so.”

If that’s true, maybe we ought to pack up this hearing on innovation in higher education and head home?

Let’s keep our seats for a minute.

The world around the universities is changing—especially the students who attend them. 

First, there are more people attending.

Right around the end of World War II, only about 5% of the population 25 years old and up had earned a college degree. When the first Higher Education Act was signed in 1965, only about 10% of this population had a college degree. Now, about 32% of Americans 25 and up have a college degree.

Second, American colleges and universities are now serving the most diverse group of students ever – 40% are 25 years or older and come to college with experiences in the workforce. Of the 21 million students in higher education only one-third are full-time undergraduates under 22 years old. Only 18.9 percent of full time students live on a campus and students are increasingly coming from a wide array of backgrounds and are the first in their family to attend college.

Third, employers need workers with post-secondary degrees. Labor economist Dr. Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University tells us, if we don’t change the trend, we’ll be about 5 million short in 2020 of people who have the proper post-secondary skills.

Congress needs to help colleges and universities meet the needs of a growing population of today’s students—one that has less time to earn their degree, wants flexibility in scheduling their classes, and needs to start earning an income sooner. And Congress may also need to consider new providers of education that don’t fit the traditional mold.

I have two questions for today’s hearing:

First: how can Congress help colleges find new ways to meet students’ changing needs, and how can we end practices by the federal government that discourage colleges and universities from innovating?

And second, should the federal government be considering a new definition for the college or university? 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 federal financial aid ought to be available to students who are learning outside our traditional institutions.

On the first question, how we can stop discouraging innovation, I want to focus one example of innovation– competency-based learning: 

One of the most promising innovations that traditional colleges and universities are making is through something called competency-based learning.

These competency-based models allow students to progress through their studies as they demonstrate competency, enabling skilled and dedicated students to finish degrees more quickly and often at significantly less cost.

For example, a working mom studying at the University of Wisconsin has an associate’s degree in nursing and wants to get her Bachelors in Nursing to increase her earning potential. Through the university’s new Flexible Option, she’s able to earn credits and finish tests and assignments on her own time, including between her shift and her son’s baseball game.  Because the degree program is based on her ability to demonstrate knowledge of the subjects – rather than her ability to sit through courses twice a week -- she might finish a Biology course in 8 weeks, but take only 3 weeks to finish a Mathematics course.

But it’s possible that government regulations may be stifling this new model of learning.

The report by the Task Force on Government Regulation, which was commissioned by a bipartisan group of four Senators on this Committee to examine higher education regulations, told us that “government regulation is a barrier to innovation.”

And in one example, they cited a 2010 Department of Education regulation that established a federal definition of a credit hour as a minimum of 1 hour of classroom instruction and 2 hours of outside work. 

The government relies upon this definition of “credit hour” in determining how to award grants and loans to students. 

Concerning the credit hour definition, the Task Force wrote “by relying on the concept of ‘seat time,’ the Department’s definition has discouraged institutions from developing new and innovative methods for delivering and measuring education, such as competency-based models which don’t rely on credit hours.”

When Kentucky Community and Technical College System began a competency-based program in 2009, federal time requirements related to the credit hour—which is the building block of semesters and academic years—got in the way. Now when students finish within the last 5 weeks of the semester they have to wait till the following semester to continue their studies.

In 2005, Congress established a provision in the higher education law for competency-based education known as “direct assessment.” This provision permitted programs at colleges and universities to use “direct assessment of student learning, in lieu of measuring student learning in credit hours” as a way to distribute federal aid. The law said that each program had to be approved by the institution’s accreditor and the Secretary of Education.

Despite this flexibility granted in the law, accreditors and the Education Department have given approval for receiving financial aid to just 6 institutions to offer one or more of these programs. 

A second barrier to innovation may be accreditation.

In this committee we have begun looking at the accreditation system, recognizing that it must improve, but that it also may be a barrier to innovation.

Accreditation is very old-fashioned in many ways – it is still regional, despite the fact that institutions compare themselves to peers across the country and may have little in common with those in closest proximity.

It also hasn’t kept up with new ways students are learning and the new ways teachers are teaching. Today, some institutions are modifying a professor’s traditional role in teaching and evaluating learning.  

I’m sure there are many other examples of government discouraging institutions from innovating and I hope our witnesses can speak to some of these and ways to make policy more flexible for innovations to come.

On the second point—whether we should consider the role of new providers of higher education:

I have said that the American higher education system of today is like the American automobile industry of the 1970s. 

First, it offers a remarkable number of choices of the best products in the world at a reasonable cost. 

Second, it is not doing enough about challenges that will require major adjustments if, 20 years from now, it wants to be able to make that same claim of superior choices at a reasonable cost.

Like the Japanese auto manufacturers that ultimately brought the American auto industry to its knees for a time, there is an emerging market of new or upstart providers of affordable higher education.

These are organizations that aren’t necessarily colleges, like we are accustomed to, but are providing higher education that may offer students a similarly high-quality education at a lower cost.

For example, students are learning technology, software-coding or product design in as little as 12 weeks at places like General Assembly, a school that hires industry experts from places like Apple and Cisco to teach adult students skills that today’s employers value.

Or they’re taking general education classes like college algebra from online organizations like StraighterLine under a monthly subscription fee with credentialed teachers, or attending a MOOC -- a Massive Open Online Course that's free and delivered by professors at many traditional colleges. 

Some organizations such as Mozilla Foundation are developing open-source “digital badges” that allow more types of organizations to identify and recognize an individual’s subject matter mastery and competency.

But there's no place for any of these innovators in today's Higher Education Act or accreditation system. The definition of what is a college has largely remained consistent since 1965.

Some senators, the President and Secretary Duncan are interested in understanding how you can enable an environment where these new providers of higher education can compete with traditional higher education and potentially offer students a lower cost, high quality education.

In 2013, President Obama said in documents accompanying his State of the Union that Congress should consider “a new system…that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results.”

What he and others are proposing is that students could use federal aid at these new organizations that aren’t traditional colleges.

A bill from Senator Lee would allow states to create parallel accreditation pathways to broaden the kinds of classes students could attend while also receiving federal aid. Under the bill, students could receive aid for attending specialized programs, apprenticeships, professional certifications, competency tests, even individual courses. I believe Senators Bennet and Rubio are working on legislation that has a similar goal.

I look forward to hearing what today’s witnesses have to say.

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