Posted by Nicole Khamis on July 27, 2015 in Blog

Discussion of the Higher Education Act, a hot topic on the Hill ahead of its budget reauthorization this fall, was accompanied by talk of decreasing federal regulations and de-mystifying financial processes for students who are struggling to pay and stay in college.

A hearing, titled “Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: Exploring Barriers to Innovation” was held in the Dirksen Senate Building Wednesday morning to discuss problems and possible solutions to the flawed post-secondary education system. 

Signed into law by President Johnson in 1965, the HEA must be reauthorized every five years. Last reauthorized in 2008, members of Congress have been scrambling to finalize the bill by the end of this year, almost two years late.  Recognized early in the hearing is that today’s college students are not represented by the 1965 law: nowadays campuses are much more diverse with people of color and people of varied financial backgrounds. The two core questions of the hearing were how does the federal government, one actor who contributes $135 billion a year to post-secondary education, incentivize students to pursue a college degree while college tuition continues to increase? Additionally, how does Congress find and fund successful competency based learning programs that measure the quality, not quantity of education? These questions will remain the basis for one of the most consequential reauthorizations of the HEA.

Many failures of the current educational system were addressed by the four witnesses, who each expressed their grievances with the traditional educational model that is not geared to accommodate students who used to be considered nontraditional but are now becoming much more common, like a mother who is trying to obtain a degree and juggle a part-time job. Significant barriers include the high cost of tuition, debt, financial aid based on credit hours. Three solutions were outlined by the witnesses for the committee: creating policies that support new ways of learning that do not have to be in a classroom; funding pilot-programs that tackle competency learning and applying it to other universities on a large scale; and finally, taking steps to address the rising costs of tuition by decreasing regulations for colleges and universities.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), who serves on the bi-partisan committee, is not shy when it comes to her passion on this and is the leading advocate for debt-free college. She pressed the committee and the witnesses to ask themselves what ‘affordable college’ really is, and how the federal government has taken no efforts to decrease the astounding cost of education and the amount of debt hanging over student’s heads.

Changing the definition of what a college is and the type of education it will provide, while equipping students with job skills they need to be competitive in the job market, is not an easy job that the 114th Congress has before them. But by keeping at the forefront of the discussion those who are the central players - the students - they may be able to set the stage for the next national success story.