House Committee Hears Ideas On New Ways To Deliver And Assess Higher Education

By Jesse O'Connell, NASFAA Policy Analyst

The House committee on Education and the Workforce on July 9 held a hearing on innovative practices in higher education that can reduce both cost and completion time while improving access and outcomes.

Witnesses at the hearing “Keeping College Within Reach: Improving Higher Education through Innovation” included:

  • Scott Jenkins, director of external relations , Western Governors University;
  • Dr. Pamela Tate, president and CEO, Council for Adult and Experiential Learning;
  • Dr. Joann A. Boughman, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, University System of Maryland; and
  • Burck Smith, CEO and founder of StraighterLine, a company that provides online general education courses directly to students.

In his opening remarks Chairman John Kline (R-MN) said that while most people think of rising tuition as the biggest change in higher education, demographic changes have also been significant.  

“According to the National Center for Education Statistics, ‘non-traditional’ students – those who decide to earn a degree later in life, perhaps while working full-time – are now the fastest growing segment in postsecondary education,” said Kline.  

He went on to cite the types of innovative ideas that might be able address the dual trends of rising costs and changing demographics, including: competency based learning, prior learning assessment (PLA), MOOCs, and schools offering general education courses online for a fee.

Kline also mentioned regulations that he saw as unnecessarily burdensome and standing in the way of innovation, including gainful employment and state authorization, and suggested that he would take steps to repeal such regulations during the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

The witnesses shared with the committee examples from their specific institutions of the types of innovation they’re engaged in, and how these efforts might be applied on a broader scale.

Delivering testimony about Western Governors University (WGU), Jenkins noted that they were founded to meet the needs of working adults and that they deliver a high-quality education for around $6,000 a year and haven’t raised tuition in five years. WGU uses a system of competency-based learning, and is the only school in the country approved to receive Title IV financial aid for such a model.

“We know two important things about adult learners: they come to college knowing different things, and they learn at different rates,” said Jenkins. “Rather than requiring all students to complete the same classes, all lasting four months, WGU has created a model that allows students to move quickly through material they already know so they can focus on what they still need to learn. Students advance by successfully completing assessments that measure competencies, such as exams, papers, and performance tasks.”

Tate testified about PLA defining it as “the process by which an individual’s experiential and other extra-institutional learning is assessed and evaluated for the purposes of granting college credit, certification, or advanced standing toward further education or training.”  Tate explained that this prior learning may have taken place in many areas, including military service, employer training programs and community service. While expounding on the benefits of PLA, she cited a major policy hurdle in the structure of the federal financial aid system.

“Currently, federal financial aid programs like Pell grants and federal loans support only traditional time-based learning. The financial aid system under Title IV is not structured for an outcomes-based and assessment-based approach to postsecondary completion. It excludes assessment of prior learning fees, even though these fees significantly reduce the student’s overall student loan debt or the amount to be covered by Pell grants or other educational benefits,” said Tate.

During the question and answer period of the hearing a common theme emerged, with Democrats on the committee each taking a portion of their allotted time to decry the increase in the subsidized Stafford loan rate and calling for their Republican counterparts to sign a petition requesting a vote on H.R. 2574, a bill from Rep. George Miller (D-CA) that would extend the reduced Stafford loan rate for one year.


Publication Date: 7/10/2013

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