How the Higher Education Act Can Support Innovation in Higher Education



Everyone involved in higher education, from reformers to college presidents, has recommendations for what the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) should include. Many establishment players insist that at least one of the answers is “more money.” Sometimes for students, sometimes for universities, always at the expense of taxpayers.

But there is another way. Last month, the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank dedicated to improving the world through disruptive innovation, made a different recommendation: support innovation.

In a new report entitled “Modernizing the HEA: Congressional priorities for innovation in higher education,” researcher Alana Dunagan cites myriad problems in postsecondary education—from rising costs and low graduation rates to growing employer dissatisfaction with recent graduates’ career readiness. The report alleges that American higher education, once the envy of the world, is no longer living up to its promise to students, employers, or society.

The report explains, “These problems stem from a business model that was never designed to serve students, a regulatory model that reinforces that broken business model and spurns innovation, and a lack of data to hold colleges and universities accountable.”

Dunagan describes higher education’s business model as complex, costly, and deeply unsustainable. While it’s regulatory model, the report says, gives “too much attention to the inputs of higher education—like faculty degrees and shared governance—and far too little to its outcomes—such as graduation rates or student employment outcomes.” Ultimately, these broken models combine to stymie innovation on college campuses.

The report concludes with three key ways that the federal government can give universities the right incentives to embrace innovative solutions:

  • Develop a new regulatory framework for online and competency-based education.
  • Reform accreditation to measure colleges by their outcomes, not their inputs.
  • Improve the basic data infrastructure of higher education.

The Christensen report is right. Rigid and outmoded rules codified in the HEA, which was first passed in 1965, keep higher education from testing or implementing truly innovative ideas. So it’s no wonder that every year and (almost) every college simply delivers more of the same. Change at the federal level is needed to allow universities to experiment and better serve modern students.

The full report is available for download here.

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