Senate Hearing on Barriers to Innovation

Deirdre Dlugoleski

On Wednesday, the Senate HELP Committee held a hearing on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, focusing on opportunities for and barriers to innovation. Panelists Jamie Merisotis (President and CEO, Lumina Foundation), Dr. Barbara Gellman-Danley (President, Higher Learning Commission), Dr. Paul LeBlanc (President, Southern New Hampshire University), and Michael Horn (Executive Director, Clayton Christensen Institute) weighed in on how to improve access, affordability, and quality of learning in higher education. Much of the conversation revolved around competency-based learning and alternative models of higher education and workforce training. The panelists highlighted some common challenges:

  • Regulations: While accreditors are willing to help IHEs innovate, state Inspectors General and the Department of Education often have conflicting regulations and definitions, creating uncertainty and confusion for both accreditors and universities seeking to complete applications.
  • Funding: Even when legislation allows for competency-based programs, virtually all of the Title IV rules for disbursement are tied to the credit hour; this also points to the challenge of creating a credible system of transfer credit or unit measure for competency-based programs.
  • Assessments: The question of assessments is also proving challenging to implementing successful competency-based programs ' in order to bridge the gap between a college education and employers' needs, assessments must be less about what students know than about what they can do with what they know. That being said, another key part of competency is generalizable skills, like critical thinking, teamwork, and problem solving; figuring out how to develop degrees that give students both general and content-specific skills will also be an important part of implementing innovative programs.
  • Experimental sites: To work out the issues in current innovative programs and initiatives, colleges and universities need more opportunities to experiment so they can determine what works best before scaling; in many cases, innovation often requires learning from mistakes.
  • Accountability and affordability: In the processes of developing innovative programs and simplifying regulations, IHEs must be accountable for quality programs, and must work to make sure that these are accessible to students (i.e. cost savings should be passed on to students). One option to explore might be offering incentives and rewards for colleges who serve students well with high-quality programs, which could increase competition and drive down costs.