In Final HEA Reauthorization Hearing, House Committee Tackles Innovation

By Allie Arcese, Sr. Director of Strategic Communications & Engagement

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

In its fifth and final bipartisan hearing covering topics for consideration when reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA), the House Committee on Education and Labor on Wednesday dove into issues around innovation and alternative pathways to a college degree.

The committee’s past four hearings have covered college affordability, accountability, college non-completion, and the role of community colleges, Historically Black Colleges & Universities, and Minority-Serving Institutions in economic mobility.

“Throughout our hearings, we have established Congress’s responsibility to restore the intent of the HEA and provide all Americans, no matter their background, with a quality college education that prepares them for the modern workforce,” Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), chairman of the committee, said in his opening remarks.

He added that those “who benefit the most from completing college are the least likely to do so.”

“To address this trend, we need structural reforms in our higher education system that not only lower the cost of college, but also better serve today’s diverse students. Innovation, backed by rigorous evaluation, plays a key role in this reform,” Scott said.

The committee members and witnesses focused on programs and reforms that could help get students to and through their programs of study more quickly, including dual enrollment and competency-based education programs.

Scott went on to say that while these types of programs could benefit underserved student populations, they are “accessible to primarily affluent students.” Ranking Member Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) said in her opening remarks that the federal government and postsecondary institutions continue to cater to a “traditional” student that is no longer the norm.

“This stubbornness in policy has resulted in mountains of debt, low student completion rates, dissatisfied employers, and a lack of accountability for poorly performing institutions,” she said. “The old ways are hurting American students and businesses, and something needs to be done about it.”

As lawmakers and higher education stakeholders to continue to discuss ways to improve student outcomes and allow for greater innovation, quality control has at times been a sticking point.

“Innovation is not and cannot be a loophole that avoids high quality, and schools experimenting in delivery models must not exacerbate the challenges currently facing the postsecondary system today,” Foxx said. “But we also need to embrace the change that is necessary in the postsecondary education system and work to support new, high-quality paths to continued learning.”

The witnesses included Judith Marwick of William Rainey Harper College, Tomikia LeGrande of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Charla Long of the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), and Sameer Gadkaree of the Joyce Foundation.

Long, in her written testimony, spoke about how competency-based education and similar opportunities can benefit a more diverse student population, including adult learners, those who work while in school, have dependents, or are first-generation students.

“Today’s higher education system recognizes and validates primarily learning that occurs within the confines of a college or university. Yet, we know learning occurs in multiple contexts, such as at work, in the military, and through community service,” she said. “Higher education has been slow to recognize learning that occurs outside of a classroom environment, which creates an inequitable system that disadvantages those who have been unable to access or afford formal, structured learning opportunities. Part of the reason for this challenge is our inability to compare learning across multiple contexts.”

Postsecondary institutions, she said, “speak in the course and credit hour language, while the vast majority of other contexts speak in terms of competencies.” Making that change, though, would be a “major undertaking,” she added, though not impossible.

She said it is still too soon, however, fully open up requirements to allow competency-based education to grow, and that there is more work to do to learn how to protect students and education quality in the process. C-BEN, she said, has urged Congress to authorize a demonstration project for these programs, and suggests that Congress create a definition of a competency-based education program that would apply to programs participating in that project.

Gadkaree focused on the role community colleges can play in timely completion. He said throughout his written testimony that targeted investments, connections to employers, improving the pipeline to four-year programs, and allowing community colleges to offer technically-oriented bachelor’s degrees could all help improve student outcomes. He cautioned, however, that technological investments, especially if not properly implemented, may not yield the outcomes some had hoped.

Marwick, provost of William Rainey Harper College, shared in her written testimony how the college participated in a regional collaborative called the Northwest Educational Consortium for Student Success (NECSS) to provide early college opportunities to high school students. She also spoke about a program called The Power of 15, which aimed to have high school students graduating with 15 hours of college credit through a combination of AP courses, dual credit courses, or credit by exam opportunities.

According to Marwick, while early college attainment rates are still lower for low-income and minority students, they are increasing. Among the 6,488 high school graduates in June 2018 among the NECSS high schools, 32% graduated with at least 15 hours of college credit. Among low-income students, 19% graduated with at least 15 hours of college credit.

She added that the “most significant barrier” to broadly expanding dual credit programs is cost. While some colleges charge full tuition, others have a flat fee or no fee at all. Marwick made several suggestions for policymakers to consider, including making the Pell Grant available for students to enroll in dual credit courses, and establishing other grants or incentives to postsecondary institutions and school districts to offer dual credit programs and ensure alignment of coursework.

LeGrande described how VCU serves its diverse student body: 43% from minority populations, one-third first-generation freshmen, and 30% low-income Pell-eligible. She said that since 2012, both VCU’s four-year and six-year graduation rates have increased by more than 14 percentage points.

“VCU is a place where we embrace the idea that equality of opportunity is available to anyone, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved. VCU is the place where American dreams come true. Achieving these outcomes is a result of several strategies and tools focused on meeting students where they are,” she said. “These strategies can be grouped in three broad categories: guidance and support, student-faculty engagement, and college access and affordability.”

LeGrande went on to say that VCU attempts to ensure access and affordability by partnering with every Virginia community college to help students transfer to the university.

“When we educate students, we prepare them to achieve their American Dream. And that’s particularly true for many of the students we serve who come from backgrounds where higher education outcomes have not been modeled for them,” she said. “So when they succeed, it’s a tremendous advantage for them, their families, their communities, and America.”


Publication Date: 6/20/2019

Aesha E | 6/20/2019 4:25:04 PM

Once again, comments about "dissatisfied employers"... once again, equating higher education to nothing more than multi-year job training. Yet these same employers can shirk their responsibilities to their employees (in training and other areas) because they expect that they should come out of college with all the skills needed and don't want to have to contribute to their employees' professional growth.

Leslie T | 6/20/2019 10:17:43 AM

... in lieu OF a degree.

Leslie T | 6/20/2019 10:16:28 AM

“Higher education has been slow to recognize learning that occurs outside of a classroom environment, which creates an inequitable system that disadvantages those who have been unable to access or afford formal, structured learning opportunities. Part of the reason for this challenge is our inability to compare learning across multiple contexts.” Sounds to me like this is more an argument for employers to recognize skills in lieu if a degree than it is an argument for fundamentally changing the focus of higher education.

David S | 6/20/2019 8:39:45 AM

Representative Foxx, a former college president, continues to talk about colleges as failures because they are not primarily focused on job training. Something like 80 percent of jobs in our economy that require an education beyond high school do not require that the degree or credential be in a specific field directly related to the job. Representative Foxx, there is room for both a traditional liberal arts education and job training in this country...and perhaps more of the job training should be done by the employers who demand those specific skills.

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