Published on 2019/04/08

The EvoLLLution | Aligning the Regulatory Environment with the 21st Century Realities
A group of advocates are calling for major changes to bring federal regulations up to speed with the 21st century model of higher education

Despite changing student demographics and technological advancements, the American higher education regulatory infrastructure and related legislation continue to address only the needs of traditional postsecondary students. In this interview, leaders from three associations serving providers of non-traditional higher education—Robert Hansen from UPCEA, Kathleen Ives from OLC and Russ Poulin from WCET—discuss some of the critical reforms needed for federal legislation to better fit the 21st-century model of higher education.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What role do the innovative institutions and divisions represented by your organizations play in supporting the 21st-century workforce, and the economy more broadly?

Robert Hansen (RH): Once pushed to the margins of our institutions, adult and non-traditional learners now outnumber traditional residential students by as much as 4 to 1. As the numbers would suggest, the U.S. cannot remain competitive in the global knowledge economy if our higher education infrastructure continues to be organized around the student demographic of 40 years ago. And by infrastructure, I mean everything from the academic and organizational priorities of our institutions to the state and federal policy establishment.

Having served adult and non-traditional learners for more than a century, UPCEA members are leading the way in making this critical paradigm shift. Whether through career-oriented graduate programs offered by schools of professional studies (Northwestern, Northeastern, NYU, to name a few), building innovative degrees at scale (Georgia Tech, Arizona State, Southern New Hampshire), or forming online campuses with a global reach (Penn State, UMUC, Oregon State), UPCEA members are reinventing higher education and in the process addressing a strategic imperative for our nation’s workforce.

Kathleen Ives (KI): The 21st-century workforce will have to be extremely agile and adaptable. This is a reflection of how quickly the economy is evolving, much of it driven by changes in technology. Individuals will have to be fully and actively engaged in continuous learning in ways that go beyond the traditional classroom.

This has been a fundamental philosophy at the heart of OLC and its member institutions—that is, anytime/anyplace access to quality educational resources that allow individuals to pursue the lifelong learning they need to grow personally and professionally. Our member institutions know that this type of learning has to include both formal and informal pathways and mechanisms to deliver and assess learning. From just-in-time learning to customized learning paths. There is no question that the benchmark of learning—a traditional degree—is changing and much of this will occur in a digital environment. These are the things that our member institutions know and understand.

Russ Poulin (RP): The traditional model of higher education focusing on young learners finishing their degrees directly out of high school will continue to serve some people very well. But that population is dwindling. As they enter the workforce, even those students will experience the need to constantly update their skills. Gone are the days where the skills learned in college are sufficient for an entire career and WCET members are meeting these needs.

The traditional academic calendar does not address the needs for many students to start immediately and not wait months until the next term begins. In response, institutions like Rio Salado College created academic terms that start every week.

Those in the workforce often do not need full degrees, so they seek shorter-term credentials, such as being pioneered by eCampusOntario. Traditional programs make time a constant and the amount learned is variable, as indicated in grades. The University of Wisconsin’s FlexProgram uses competency-based education to make learning a constant (everyone reaches a set level of content mastery) and the time to reach that goal varies. OLC and WCET are members of the Every Learner Everywhere network, which uses adaptive learning and computer software for institutions to implement competency-based courses.

Textbook costs have risen greater than any other consumer product. WCET is working with the regional higher education compacts to bring the policies and practices supporting Open Educational Resources (which are free to the student) to scale so that more students can access affordable course materials.

Finally, there are a growing number of non-accredited or “alternative” education providers, such as StraighterLine. How should we recognize and regulate those alternative providers who are providing value—and how do we eliminate those that are not?

Evo: How are these institutions and divisions currently hampered by a federal regulatory environment designed for the labor market and education ecosystem of the past?

RH: Adult learners and the units that serve them today are in some ways being stifled by regulations that were developed in the 20th century, and are not relevant to the major technological and educational innovations that have occurred in the past two decades. The most obvious misalignment is continuing to view online learning as suspect, or as requiring additional levels of scrutiny not applied to on-ground learning even when there is no justification for the double standard. Beyond online, higher education policy does not account for the rise of non-credit programs (stackable certificates, badges, and other alternative credentials) through short-term programs and so-called bootcamps. These additional access points to higher education are also necessary on-ramps to a dynamic workforce. A comprehensive overhaul of the Higher Education Act should recognize and embrace these and other innovative developments.

KI: Regulations and the regulatory environment often reflect conditions of the past.  Nonetheless, regulations have a very important role in higher education, in that they level the playing field when applied equitably across the industry. With the rise of alternative and non-traditional educational providers, this will be an increasingly important role. That said, there needs to be significant changes in how regulations are developed in order to reflect the rapid advancements made possible with digital technologies. As it is now, it is like forcing today’s NBA players to play by the rules of the game in the 1950s. They are still playing basketball, but the game has none of the excitement or potential of today. We are asking institutions to be creative and think out of the box in creating educational opportunities for all learners. Regulations and regulators have to reflect this new reality.

RP: First and foremost, we must recognize the reason for the federal regulations is to assure that federal financial aid funds are efficiently and effectively spent to further student learning. There must always be guardrails to protect against unscrupulous providers. Sometimes this will mean more work for institutions and we have to be willing to accept that burden. The recent college closings remind us that the scale at which students have been harmed by some of those providers has caused many policymakers and beltway thinktanks to immediately become suspect of any and all non-traditional educational activities. We certainly can find ways to achieve the joint goals of protecting aid expenditures, safeguarding students and allowing for effective education innovations.

Evo: What are some of your key recommendations to modernize the regulatory environment?

RH: Direct assessment and competency-based education could be helpful for employers to more easily know about the verified skills of a potential hire rather than just looking at a degree and transcript. Workforce stakeholders are looking to find better measurements and signals for assessing potential employees’ skills. Students can better understand which areas they excel in, and which areas they may need additional schooling or work, and then use those to link with jobs that will fit well with their knowledge and skills, while accessing programs which can fit their customized needs. These programs still have to undergo extensive “reverse-engineering” to make them align with the traditional credit-hour measurement, and the hurdles to begin one of these programs can be substantial for institutions. Measuring financial aid and structuring the education policy system around competencies and student outcomes instead of seat time would be an enormous step in the right direction.

The current regulatory environment also places an undue burden on distance education through items like regular and substantive interaction regulation. We hope there is a legislative fix soon for this outdated measurement, which is based on inputs of teachers rather than outcomes of students. We also hope that the Department can structure a system which is helpful to all students, regardless of part-time, full-time, or periods that might exist outside the normal semester and credit hour framework.

KI: OLC was founded 25 years ago on the principles of anytime/anyplace access to education for all individuals. This still remains the driving passion for our member institutions. But access alone does not guarantee equality of the educational experience. As OLC has matured, our understanding of anytime/anyplace access to education has evolved. Access must also address equity and inclusion, it must address diversity and accessibility and it must come with an understanding of the economics of access. This is true at all levels of the educational spectrum, from teacher to learner to institution to regulators. Education remains the cornerstone of a fair and equitable society and access to education for all individuals remains our passion.

We would also like to see advances in accreditation related to digital education. The way we regulate and accredit institutions of higher education has grown increasingly more complex over the past decade. However, we have not seen effective guidance that is specific to online learning. Accrediting criteria often remain generic and more specific to traditional, face-to-face learning, leaving colleges and universities with limited understanding of how those rules may apply to an online environment. Accreditors may not include online learning experts in reviews of higher education institutions, further exacerbating the problem. Clear and specific guidelines need to be provided on what quality means in online learning in order to foster an effective environment for student learning. OLC works with many institutions to interpret what this means using our Suite of Quality Scorecards. These research-based tools provide institutions with best practices that can help provide insight on areas that need to be improved while helping an institution pursue quality practices.

RP:We agree that financial aid eligibility rules for competency-based education and the definition of regular and substantive interaction need to be addressed. But both must be done in a way that does not open federal financial aid expenditures to being misused and the rulemaking process seems to have a good model in the works. Two other topics that we addressed in our policy papers are state authorization and expanding aid for the 21st-century learner. On the first one, institutions are required to obtain the approval (if any) of each state in which it conducts educational activities. WCET’s State Authorization Network works with institutions to understand how to comply with state and federal requirements. We are now approaching a decade of the Department of Education trying to settle on rules that it will implement. The rulemaking process seems to have made great progress on this front. One example of updating federal financial aid for the 21st-century learner is to consider ways to allow aid for educational programs that are shorter than a degree or certificate. Short-term credentials are becoming more popular and should be made accessible to students from all financial backgrounds.

Evo: In your ideal scenario, what would be the central characteristics of the postsecondary ecosystem if these recommendations are adopted into policy?

RH: We need an ecosystem that treats students and institutions fairly and equally. No matter the student, their individual situation, or the modality they use, access to and delivery of higher education should be the same. In practice, this would mean introducing sufficient financial aid for a less-than-half-time student taking self-paced classes, or holding institutions that provide distance education to the same (not higher) standards as on-ground providers. Working adults and students new to postsecondary education require appropriate support, and must be made aware that an on-ground, full-time path is not the only way to advance their career or academic goals.

We have reached a time in which students need to retool and upskill to meet new economic and technological demands. A system that encourages constant learning—no matter the time of day or physical location of the student—is critical.

RP: The system needs to be outcomes-focused and evidence-based. Some people dismiss this notion immediately because they think that a focus on outcomes will require one national standard for each discipline. On the contrary, one of the highlights of our current accrediting system is that it relies on institutions providing evidence of their activities and making the argument why the evidence presented includes sufficient measurements for the goals to be achieved. The outcomes do not all have to be identical. The current policy construct waits until an educational practice becomes mainstream and then it tries to define it. The allowances for experimentation are drastically flawed. For example, “distance education” was defined in 1992 and we’re still trying to get it right. Instead, lets develop a research-based model of introducing innovations that starts with small samples of students and is applied to more students as the evidence of its success is presented. Ironically, higher education has been great at applying the scientific method to other industries, but has fallen short in applying it to advances in educational techniques.

Evo: What are the next steps in this process?

RH: Our three organizations are hopeful that the joint issuance of our policy papers will influence current talks at the U.S. Department of Education and the negotiated rulemaking process, as well as the broader discussions with legislators regarding the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which has not been reauthorized in over a decade. We also encourage our members and the general public to access and share these papers. As conversations are occurring internally at institutions, stakeholders can use this background knowledge as well as better understand the future of how their institution may engage with these policies and advocate for purposeful change.  

KI: We also hope that accreditors will take note of what is happening globally in digital learning. As the U.S. Department of Education makes a determination of potential changes, accreditors should be better preparing the institutions they represent by providing clear and specific guidance on the use of online, blended and digitally enhanced learning. In addition, self-studies and visits (new and reaffirmation of accreditation) of institutions that provide online and blended learning programs need to include an in-depth review of the programs to determine how institutions are meeting best practices and creating an effective learning environment. Taking this step can help to alleviate some of the concerns being discussed in changes to regulations.

RP: In either federal process (negotiated rulemaking or reauthorization), we must remember that higher education is our livelihood. We want what is best for our students. Be active in letting the department, your representative, and your senators know what you think. While our organizations cannot lobby and will not tell you what to say, we try to reflect your opinions. Watch for guidance from our organizations on how to make your opinion heard.

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Key Takeaways

  • The regulatory structure governing postsecondary education should be restructured to the needs of today’s non-traditional students, providing space for competencies and student outcomes rather than seat time.
  • The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is overdue and would provide the opportunity for policy changes to better reflect the needs of non-traditional students.
  • With short-term credentials becoming more popular, financial aid needs to be extended to support students enrolling in programs shorter than a degree or certificate and possibly even non-credit offerings.