Several bills have advanced in Congress as part of a piecemeal approach that signifies the beginning of a process to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which covers federal student aid and accreditation among other areas.
One bill, the Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act introduced by Reps. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz.,, Susan Brooks, R-Ind.,, and Jared Polis, D-Colo., would enable the Department of Education to grant flexibility to educational options that focus on skills achieved and subjects mastered, rather than time spent in a classroom.
This legislation directs the Department of Education to create competency-based education demonstration projects, and enables the secretary of education to waive existing regulations that impede the growth of competency-based education. Moving away from “seat time” and toward competency-based education is a worthwhile goal, but the proposal maintains the role of the federal government by enabling the Secretary of Education to select various entities to participate in competency-based education demonstration projects.
Another bill, The Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act, introduced by Reps. Virginia Foxx R-N.C. and Luke Messer R-Ind., is designed to streamline the information required on the existing College Navigator website operated by the U.S. Department of Education. The existing College Navigator site requires colleges to provide a litany of data, with the hope of helping students make informed decisions about college and student loan debt. But it’s questionable whether the existing site accomplishes that mission.
The federal government requires colleges to provide information on the cost of attendance, the net price of attendance, and includes on the website the 5 percent of colleges with the highest tuition and fees, and the 5 percent of colleges that have the largest increase in tuition and fees over the most recent past 3 academic years, among a multitude of other data.
The Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act proposal would rename the site the College Dashboard, and attempts to streamline the information made available. It would, however, require more than three dozen pieces of information, including, among other metrics, specific data such as “the ratio of the number of course sections taught by part-time instructors to the number of course sections taught by full-time faculty, disaggregated by course sections intended primarily for undergraduate students and course sections intended primarily for graduate students,” and “the mean and median years of employment for part-time instructors.”
Although the transparency act is an effort to make the existing U.D. Department of Education website more user-friendly and transparent, the problem with any such site is that it inevitably reflects inputs delineated by Congress and federal agencies, rather than parents, students, and scholarly communities, to determine what is or is not important in education.
A more promising approach might be for the Department of Education to act simply as a clearinghouse for information, not the arbiter of what information is valuable to students. Being a clearinghouse for non-governmental ranking entities such as U.S. News and World Report, Kiplinger’s, and Princeton Review, could prove useful, while not putting a federal imprimatur on what designates quality. The Center for World University Rankings, for example, recentlyanalyzed the top 1,000 universities throughout the world, using metrics such as alumni employment, patents, publications, and the quality of education, among other measures.
A third proposal out of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, the Empowering Students Through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act, introduced by Reps. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., and Richard Hudson, R_N.C., would provide enhanced counseling for students receiving federal financial aid. Among other things, the bill directs the secretary of education to “maintain and disseminate a consumer-tested, online counseling tool institutions can use to provide annual loan counseling, exit counseling, and annual Pell Grant counseling.”
The House Education and the Workforce Committee is pursuing a piecemeal approach to reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. But the HEA needs a major overhaul. A guiding principal for reauthorization should be to streamline the HEA in a way that more closely mirrors its primary purpose of allocating federal student loans and grants to ease the cost of college. That goal requires eliminating duplicative, unnecessary, or ineffective programs and titles that have accrued over the decades, and considering reforms that would ensure the HEA best serves students.Better targeting Pell Grant funding to serve the needs of low-income students and creating a more flexible and affordable higher education experience by decoupling federal financing from accreditation are two such reforms.