WASHINGTON — Serving students without college degrees is among the key challenges in higher education, said members of the Senate panel during a hearing Thursday. 

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. said Congress needs to create an environment that fosters more innovation and meets the diverse needs of today’s students, which include college students without high school diplomas. Given the range of student needs across the U.S., Alexander said the higher education system must provide tailored solutions for prospective students to later thrive in the job market.


Jobs that went to college-educated workers since the recession

The Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee is examining proposals to amend the Higher Education Act, which has been in place since 1965 and now requires congressional reauthorization. In previous hearings, senators called for the simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form and of the broader federal financial aid system. 

“As the typical university student has changed into a more wide-ranging group, there is a bipartisan consensus that colleges need to be able to offer more solutions to meet those students’ diverse needs,” said Alexander, the committee’s chairman. 

Data collected by Georgetown University economists suggests the labor market will take a hit in 2020, as a shortage of employees with the necessary post-secondary skills could leave five million positions unfilled. According to the same data, 65 percent of all jobs in the economy will require post-secondary education and training beyond high school. 

Students who pursue higher education

  • Students 25 and older 38% 38%
  • Students who work while enrolled in school 58% 58%
  • Students who attend school part time 38% 38%

During the hearing, lawmakers discussed so-called competency-based learning, an approach that focuses on the acquisition of skills and knowledge instead of strictly classroom-based learning. The flexibility of these programs allows non-traditional students to enroll in post-secondary programs and have better job prospects. 

Competency-based education uses metrics like the quality of curriculum design or students’ ability to get jobs after graduation, said Dr. Deborah Bushway, an independent higher education consultant. 

But Sen. Chris Murphy, (D-Conn.), asked whether such programs run the risk of having low credibility due to a lack of regulations. “Innovation stinks without accountability,” Murphy said. 

Other senators asked whether low-income students would have difficulty adjusting to online learning and newer programs facing more pushback when applying for accreditation. 

Non-traditional students are often unfair targets of deception and fly-by-night programs, said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, (D-Mass.) She added that there is a lack of resources for students to compare programs, and called for institutions to be more transparent in the information they provide. 

“Given what we’re asking students to spend on a college education, students should have as much information as possible to avoid wasting their money at lousy schools that could leave them deeper in debt,” Warren said. 

The committee will reconvene Tuesday to discuss accountability and risk to taxpayers as part of its effort to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.