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Congress Pondering How to Catch Up With Education

Disruptive innovation is a force that promises to transform almost every aspect of our lives, whether we like it or not. Corporations such as Uber, Airbnb, and Facebook are all “disruptive innovators,” changing the nature of commerce and how we communicate.

Similar forces are at work in higher education.

When online classes were first invented, they seemed to spell the inevitable demise of brick and mortar schools. Instead, traditional institutions simply incorporated online coursework into their academic offerings. Many are now flourishing as a result, and some schools are doing so well that they are able to use the profits made from online courses to fund unrelated programs. There are now colleges that are almost entirely online, signaling the creation of an entirely new class of higher education providers.

Institutions are also trying to be more innovative in their student recruitment efforts. When choosing a school, students have to weigh the typically high cost and debt that they might incur against the long-term benefit of having a degree. Innovative institutions of higher education realized that they can tap into the pool of students who need to work or to care for their families by offering flexible online classes that allow students to continue with their lives while also working towards a degree.

As Congress moves towards reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA), members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) said that they would hope to encourage innovation in higher education. The HELP Committee looked at barriers to innovation at a hearing on the HEA reauthorization on Wednesday.

Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., focused on competency-based education in his remarks. He said that institutions of higher education now serve a vastly different population than they did when the HEA was first signed into law in 1965. As Alexander noted, today’s students now are older and less than 20 percent actually live on campus.

“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,” Alexander said. “And Congress may also need to consider new providers of education that don’t fit the traditional mold.”

Schools and companies already have seen that there are infinite possibilities with online education. They can reach a much broader segment of the population, now that time and distance have relatively little meaning. If a student wants to get a degree, and keep their job or care for a family at the same time, they can simply learn online.

Alexander suggested that government regulations and accreditation may be barriers to innovation, in the sense that both are currently designed for the higher education system of the 20th century, not the 21st.

At the hearing, witnesses advised against overhauling current regulations too dramatically, or at least without a better understanding of what online education will look like in a few years. Dr. Paul J. LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, cautioned that online education is still evolving as a sector.

“We don’t know enough yet,” LeBlanc said. “For example, if competency-based education offers a new currency of learning and still does not have an established exchange rate, we have as of yet little idea on how to create a transfer system for CBE.”

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at [email protected].

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