Higher Education

Watch Out, Higher Education, Congress Has You in Its Crosshairs!

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Higher education institutions and their lobbyists better keep a sharp eye on what is happening on the Hill in D.C. There is trouble brewing.

Politico.com published the following this morning:
SENATE HELP INQUIRES ON INNOVATION IN HIGHER ED: With No Child Left Behind behind them, Senate HELP Committee leaders return to Higher Education Act reauthorization today. The hearing focus: “Exploring barriers and opportunities within innovation.” Witnesses include Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie Merisotis, Higher Learning Commission President Barbara Gellman-Danley and Michael Horn, co-founder and executive director for education programs at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Also testifying is Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc, who just wrapped a stint at the Education Department advising on innovation, competency-based education and accreditation. Watch live starting at 10 a.m. ET: http://1.usa.gov/1V7MAi2.

— Committee Chair Sen. Lamar Alexander will pose two big questions: How can Congress help colleges meet students’ changing needs and stop discouraging colleges and universities from innovating, and should the federal government consider a new definition for the college or university? “There are many new learning models that are entering the landscape, thanks to the Internet,” Alexander will say, according to prepared remarks. “We need to consider what role they play in our higher education system, and whether federal financial aid ought to be available to students who are learning outside our traditional institutions.”

— Ranking member Sen. Patty Murray wants to break down barriers that keep low-income and non-traditional students out of traditional colleges, she’ll say today. But she believes that to ensure institutions can’t mislead students, Congress should be wary of welcoming alternative providers and models without enacting strong accountability measures. “I know several of my Republican colleagues are interested in shaking up the current higher education system, the sooner the better. But I believe we should tread carefully,” Murray will say, according to prepared remarks. “Simply opening access to federal student aid, without accountability, for any company or institution that offers an alternative to traditional education would fail to protect consumers.”

As for the witnesses, the Lumina Foundation often teams up with Gates to redesign other people’s lives. Michael Horn is a big supporter of disruption theory (blow things up and see what happens next, as is Clayton Christensen, the Harvard business professor who made a virtue of chaos). And then there is that guy from Arne Duncan’s shop, whose university has one of the lowest graduation rates in New Hampshire.

What you can be sure of is that when government talks about “innovation” these days, what they really mean is opening up the sector for profit making, entrepreneurial ventures. You would think by now that the Congress would reflect on the meltdown at failed Corinthian Colleges, the for-profit (“innovative”) set of colleges that closed a few months ago, stranding tens of thousands of students. Our most “innovative” colleges and universities seem to be best at delivering instruction online, which opens up opportunities for selling product more than opportunities for higher education. No one stops higher education now from putting courses online, if they choose to. Why does Congress think that higher education is waiting to be told what to do by politicians? It may be asking too much to suggest that they stick to doing what they know, but….they should stick to doing what they know.

The biggest problem in higher education is that low-income and non-traditional students can’t afford to pay for it, and most traditional students leave burdened with debt. Why doesn’t the committee focus on that big obstacle and barrier to access? Affordability is what is needed, not new models designed by a Congressional committee.

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