The Senate is continuing to collect testimony from experts before drafting its bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA), holding its third in a series of hearings on issues in higher education Thursday, which focused on access and innovation.
During the first session in November, where witnesses discussed the merits and drawbacks of the FAFSA, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said that drafting the bill is top priority for the Senate 2018. Alexander, along with Ranking Member Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), held a second hearing last week on aid simplification and transparency. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce have already passed their bill— the PROSPER Act— out of committee.
Thursday’s hearing focused on programs designed to help nontraditional learners such as Competency-Based Education (CBE), as well as those meant to increase access to higher education such as dual enrollment programs. Senators and witnesses also discussed concerns about the Department of Education’s (ED) Experimental Sites Initiative, which has recently come under fire for a lack of data collection and evaluation.
Alexander said he convened the hearing because current legislation does not reflect the needs of the changing demographic of students pursuing higher education today.
“Our reauthorization and today’s hearing is focused on students… whether it is an 18-year-old college freshman, a mom returning to school to finish her bachelor’s while working full-time, or a 25-year-old low-income student who is the first in his family to attend college,” Alexander said in his opening remarks. “In other words, how can Congress create an environment for colleges to innovate to meet the needs of today’s— and tomorrow's — students?”
Witnesses included Joe May, chancellor at Dallas Community College District, Donna Linderman, university dean for student success initiatives at the City University of New York, Barbara Brittingham, president of the Commision on Institutions of Higher Education at the New England Association of School and Colleges, Deborah Bushway, independent higher education consultant and provost at Northwestern Health Sciences University, and Michael Larsson, founder and president of Match Beyond.
The witnesses stressed the importance of CBE programs for nontraditional students, which emphasize students’ ability to demonstrate skills and knowledge over classroom time, and argued that there needs to be legislation in place to ensure that their curriculums remain high-quality and produce students ready to enter the workforce.
Murray expressed concern about reports that online courses are not the best fit for low-income students because they lack outside support from faculty, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) asked the witnesses how they can protect students from scams in the form of online courses that do not prepare students for the future. Bushway responded that there is a major difference between online courses and CBE programs that are completed online— while online courses can simply be delivered to a student, CBEs are designed to support students through the entirety of the program.
Larsson, who founded a non-profit organization that helps low-income students earn degrees, said that online CBE programs need to complimented with a support system, similar to career coaches. He also argued that in order to help low-income students succeed in these programs, they should provide students with services such as transportation, daycare, warm meals, and quiet places to study.
“A lot of the challenges that low-income students face online, they face on campus as well,” he said. “Simple things can break down real barriers.”
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) pledged her support for dual enrollment programs, in which high school students take courses that can be used for college credit, and asked witnesses how Congress can better support such initiatives. May, who has enrolled thousands of students in dual enrollment programs, said that the greatest barrier to higher education for low-income high school students is that they do not understand how to earn a degree nor believe they can afford it. He argued that these courses, which require partnerships between high schools and institutions, show these students that pursuing a postsecondary education is possible. In order to support high school students in these programs, he said Pell Grants should be made accessible to them.
“We all need to be invested in the success of our students coming through, and by not having the state put dollars into that, frankly we create barriers,” May said.
Senators also discussed issues with ED’s Experimental Sites Initiative, arguing that while it is advantageous to test innovations in higher education on small scale, this program is notorious for a lack of follow-through. In fact, according to a recent report by New America, experiments on campuses have gone unchecked by ED for almost 30 years. In order to test new programs and innovations, like CBE, the witnesses argued that Congress needs to mandate that these programs are rigorously evaluated.
Publication Date: 1/26/2018