July marked the beginning of the congressional reapproval process of the Higher Education Act (HEA). As the federal law that governs the administration of federal student aid programs, the HEA must be reauthorized by Congress every five years.

To that end. a Senate hearing was held on July 22, tasked with exploring “barriers and opportunities within innovation.” Witnesses included Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie Merisotis, Higher Learning Commission President Barbara Gellman-Danley and Michael Horn, co-founder and executive director for education programs at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

In the hearing, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee challenged witnesses to consider new models of learning that involve the Internet and changing the role of traditional universities, and the witnesses obliged.

Horn highlighted the compelling, yet challenging current landscape of education technology, stating: “We are seeing a variety of potentially disruptive organizations powered by online learning emerge from outside traditional higher education. These upstarts are reaching those students who need more education but for reasons having to do with convenience and accessibility, simplicity, and cost, are, at that point in their lives, nonconsumers of traditional higher education.”

Merisotis argued that innovation in higher education begins with challenging the traditional view of the college student: “There are more than 20 million students enrolled in the nation’s two- and four-year institutions. Of these, only about 7 million fit the image of the traditional college student. About 40 percent are 25 years or older. More than one-third attend part time, and nearly 20 percent are holding down full-time jobs as they attend college.” As such, Merisotis argued a need to recognize the wide array of innovative postsecondary education providers.

All of the witnesses agreed on a need to drive quality in this time of educational advancement. Said Gellman-Danley: “In the academic marketplace, the stakes are much higher … Lives are profoundly affected by higher education, as we know, for better or for worse because so many people — students, families and employers — rely on it.”

The decisions made with this reauthorization are vital not just to HotChalk, but to the entire future of online learning. Leaders in the space have an opportunity to set the stage for a new era of democratized education by continuing to challenge the traditional paradigm with the aim to improve access and quality of the higher-education learning experience.

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