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Two Democratic U.S. senators are giving a boost to the growing interest from members of both parties in Congress to make it easier for alternative models of higher education -- such as competency-based education -- to gain access to federal funding.

Sens. Christopher Murphy of Connecticut and Brian Schatz of Hawaii said Thursday that they planned to introduce legislation next month that would create a competitive pilot program to fund innovations in higher education that would bring down costs and reduce the time needed to complete a degree.  

“We’re at the very early stages of the competency-based learning ecosystem,” Murphy told reporters Thursday. “But the federal government should be a bigger partner in helping to develop these new innovative ecosystems around shorter-timeframe degree programs.”

He said the fund would be aimed at innovations in online courses, competency-based degrees, dual-enrollment programs and accelerated degrees.

Currently, institutions that want to experiment with many of those nontraditional programs have to ask the Education Department on an individual basis for a waiver from federal standards. (The administration plans to expand those options in the coming days.) The program in this proposal would provide a blanket authorization to the programs.  

Other efforts afoot on Capitol Hill and elsewhere to promote online innovations in higher education have focused on changes to the nation’s accreditation and financial aid systems. All of those issues are expected to receive increased attention from lawmakers as Congress embarks on a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Accountability Measures for Current Programs

The legislation that Murphy and Schatz plan to introduce will also condition the receipt of federal student aid at all institutions on meeting certain standards. Similar to the rating system that the Obama administration is currently developing -- and also wants to eventually link to federal student aid -- their proposal would impose new performance standards on colleges who want to continue to receive aid.

Those standards, according to a fact sheet about the legislation, would “focus on the access schools provide to low- and middle-income students, affordability, and value” -- the latter of which is likely to irk private college leaders in particular.  

If colleges fail those metrics, they would have to eventually start repaying federal funds back to the government or else lose their eligibility to the federal student aid programs. (That would go a step further than the president’s proposal, which calls for colleges to eventually receive more or less federal funding based on their past performance in the ratings system).

Murphy said that he would be pushing those changes to how the government spends roughly $150 billion in student aid each year “to change the psychology of college administrators and college presidents so they are thinking about affordability.”

“We think it’s time for federal higher education policy to force college presidents to wake up every day thinking about how they can keep tuition down,” he said.

Schatz said that the additional standards for determining eligibility on federal student aid would take into account the diversity of institutions of higher education in the country -- a concern that has been voiced repeatedly by colleges as the Obama administration develops its rating system.

“You have a right to have a different mission,” he said. “But you have no special right to federal subsidies unless you focus on access and affordability.”

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