Senate HELP Committee Holds Hearing on HEA Reauthorization

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Jen Ortega serves as a consultant to EDUCAUSE on federal policy and government relations. She has worked with EDUCAUSE since 2013 and assists with monitoring legislative and regulatory proposals across a range of policy areas, including cybersecurity, data privacy, e-learning, and accessibility.


On July 22, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing, entitled “Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: Exploring Barriers and Opportunities within Innovation.” The hearing is one of several hosted by the HELP Committee on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), which governs federal student financial aid among other aspects of higher education.  This particular hearing focused on the extent to which the HEA should regulate competency-based education programs and federal student financial aid for such programs, while also considering the role accreditors should play in maintaining program quality.

At the hearing, several Senators voiced support for competency-based programs and exploring new and innovative approaches to expand higher education access for more students across the country. The committee chairman, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), for example, said in a press release following the hearing, “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. And Congress may also need to consider new providers of education that don’t fit the traditional mold.”

The witnesses echoed this sentiment. They argued HEA should allow safe spaces for colleges and universities to operate beyond the current regulated educational arena. This would allow higher education institutions greater latitude to innovate as well as potentially make federal student aid available for use with alternative providers of online learning, all with the goal of stimulating increased postsecondary education access and student success.

At the same time, the witnesses and many Senators from both sides of the aisle highlighted the risks of possibly providing federal aid to low-quality offerings from alternative providers. They called for Congress to put safeguards in place to protect students and taxpayers alike from such circumstances. In fact, a group of 17 higher education institutions that offer competency-based programs sent a letter [] to Capitol Hill mentioning that, even as the federal government tries to support innovative models, it will need to maintain policies that effectively prevent “poor programs and disreputable providers” from entering the market. They stressed their support for increased use of demonstration projects and experimental sites to speed development of innovation as well as effective policy-making in this area.

While HEA reauthorization does not seem likely to move through Congress prior to the August recess, these hearings and discussions are vital to its progress and final outcome. EDUCAUSE will continue to monitor the committee’s work on this issue as well as reauthorization as a whole as the legislative process surrounding HEA continues.