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Will Senate Increase Innovation and Access in HEA Reauthorization?

The bill hasn’t been reauthorized since 2008 and has been extended to maintain authority.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee took up the Higher Education Act (HEA) in the third of many hearings last week. The bill hasn’t been reauthorized since 2008 and has been extended to maintain authority. As the Center for Digital Education mentioned before, the bill began the long journey in December when the House Education and Workforce Committee passed their version of the bill.

It is now the Senate’s turn to take up the bill in committee, and the third hearing focused on innovation and access. The House version of the bill doesn’t focus much on these two issues in higher education, so it is encouraging to see that the Senate places importance on student-centered outcomes. (The House version is also not expected to go anywhere in the Senate.)

Both Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Ranking Member Patty Murray, D-Wash., expressed great interest in competency-based education. They both suggested that competency-based education would be a focus in the reauthorization. A provost testifying at the hearing, Deborah Bushway, told the committee she thought that competency-based education should be defined in the reauthorization of the HEA.
This similar discussion occurred during the reauthorization process of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2015, but ultimately the Senate decided it was best left up to the states to define such a broad educational model. Since the Committee is under the same makeup and leadership, it is likely they will again choose not to define such a term for higher education.
Chairman Alexander also gave great praise to several bills already introduced that have bipartisan support, suggesting he might roll some of that language into the reauthorization of the HEA.
According to Roll Call, those bills include:
  • Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to create a pilot program to monitor student results in completing a course of study and getting a job.
  • A bill by Sen. Michael Bennet and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, that aims at promoting new strategies for universities to improve college completion rates and paying them if those strategies are successful.
  • A bill that would allow students to use Pell Grants to pay for short-term skills and job training programs that lead to employment in high-demand fields like health care and cybersecurity. Authored by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., the bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
Finally, on the innovation piece, experts believe that the data just isn’t available to track more of the nontraditional students. It is currently harder for higher education leaders to track students that get a job right out of high school, rather than going straight to college. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., suggested that in order for innovation to occur, better data will be needed.

The Senate still has many other segments of the HEA to consider before it will be voted on by the full committee. In fact, it will be moving along if there is reauthorization language by early spring. Keep checking back to CDE to follow along and see where the bill goes!