Speeches & Floor Statements

Opening Statement: Alexander: Congress Should Create Environment That Allows Colleges to be as Versatile as Today’s Students

Posted on January 25, 2018

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will please come to order.


This is another in a series of hearings as we work to get a result by early spring on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.


This is the digital age with remarkable inventions everywhere we turn, and so today we are looking at how the federal government can get out of the way so schools can innovate to meet the needs of all of today’s college students.


Senator Murray and I will each have an opening statement, and then we will introduce the witnesses. After the witnesses' testimony, senators will each have 5 minutes of questions.



The world around universities is changing – and so is the university student.


In 2007 – just 11 years ago – there was no iPhone. A micro-blogging company named Twitter had just gained its own separate platform and started to scale globally. And Amazon released something called Kindle.


It is a world where employers need more workers with post-secondary degrees than they ever have before. Georgetown University economists predict we will be five million short in 2020 of people with the necessary post-secondary skills.


And, according to Georgetown, during the recovery from the last recession, over 95 percent of newly created jobs went to college educated workers.  


It is also a time when college students are coming to college from various stages of life -- according to the Lumina Foundation, 38 percent of college students today are 25 years or older, 58 percent work while enrolled in school, and over a quarter are also raising children.


Many graduated from high school and immediately joined the workforce, and are now coming back to school to learn new skills to increase their earning potential.


Of the 21 million students pursuing higher education, 38 percent attend school part-time – up from 31 percent in 1965.



As I said, today’s hearing is another in a series examining proposals as we work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act by early spring.


From these hearings I see a consensus emerging that is student focused: Simpler, more effective regulations that make college more affordable and easier for students to apply for financial aid and pay back their loans; reducing red tape so administrators can spend more time and money on students; making sure a degree is worth the time and money students spend to earn it; and helping colleges keep students safe on campus.


Our reauthorization and today’s hearing is focused on students. Today we will look at how we can help colleges provide an education that works for every student – whether it is an 18-year old college freshman, a mom returning to school to finish her bachelors while also working full-time, or a 25 year old low-income student who is the first in his family to attend college.


In other words, how can Congress create an environment for colleges to innovate to meet the needs of today’s – and tomorrow’s – students?



As the typical university student has changed into a more wide-ranging group, there is a bipartisan consensus that colleges need to be able to offer solutions to meet those students’ diverse needs –flexible class schedules or online learning to accommodate for family and work commitments.


While we may not all agree on all aspects, there are a number of proposals from senators that that would help schools offer innovative approaches to students.


Senators Bennet and Rubio have introduced the Higher Education Innovation Act, a bill that would create a pilot program to allow alternative accreditors to monitor students’ results, such as completion and getting a job, to determine if institutions or new non-college providers could receive to federal aid.


Senators Bennet and Hatch have the Pay for Student Success Act which would allow universities to pilot new strategies for improving college completion, and then be paid if their strategies are successful.


Senators Kaine, Portman, Brown, Cardin, Gillibrand, Hassan, Klobuchar, and Stabenow have introduced the JOBS Act, a bill to allow students to use Pell grants to pay for short-term skills and job training programs that lead to credentialing and employment in high-demand fields like health care or cybersecurity.


I hope our witnesses today will discuss these and other proposals, as well as their own work to help colleges meet the needs of today’s students.


One of the most promising innovations is competency-based learning, which helps students finish a degree based on their ability to demonstrate knowledge of the subjects – rather than hours spent in a classroom.


A good example is a working mom studying at the University of Wisconsin who has earned her  associate’s degree in nursing and wants to get her Bachelor’s in nursing to increase her earning potential. Through the university’s new Flexible Option, she is able to earn credits and finish tests and assignments on her own time, including between her shift and her son’s baseball game, to earn her degree sooner. 


I know Senators Bennet, Isakson, Hatch, and Murphy have introduced legislation in the past to establish a pilot program so federal student aid can more easily follow students to competency based programs.


Two of our witnesses today are experts in competency-based education programs and I hope they will discuss this promising approach to helping students complete their degrees, as well as how to meet the unique challenges these students may face.


I hope our witnesses will also talk about any barriers the federal government has in place that are preventing schools from creating innovative programs and solutions.


Today’s college student could look many different ways, and colleges are working hard to meet their needs, and what I want to know is, how can we get the federal government out of the way so they can meet these students’ needs?