Martin Center column probes innovation dilemma at the U.S. Department of Education

Preston Cooper writes for the Martin Center about a key challenge for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The next stage of DeVos’ agenda will review several of the rules governing which higher education institutions and programs are eligible for federal funding, with an eye toward giving colleges more flexibility.

The changes DeVos will likely attempt highlight a dilemma all conservative higher-education reformers face: the tension between promoting innovation and protecting taxpayers.

While still in development, DeVos’ agenda comes down firmly on the side of creating a more hospitable environment for educational innovation. For instance, she wants to encourage the growth of competency-based programs, whose degree requirements focus on learning skills rather than completing semesters. Limitations on when aid-eligible colleges can contract with third-party educational providers are in DeVos’ crosshairs as well. And the Trump administration has also expressed interest in allowing short-term educational programs to receive federal grants. (Currently, programs must exceed 600 hours of class time, or around 20 weeks for a full-time student.)

In the optimists’ view, deregulating aid eligibility will free colleges to develop new models to equip students with the skills they need to thrive in tomorrow’s economy. Short-term programs will help the workforce adapt to a rapidly changing labor market. Partnerships between traditional colleges and outside providers will combine the best features of reputable incumbents and nimble startups.

But there are big potential downsides to DeVos’s proposals. Allowing greater flexibility in loan eligibility also means giving out taxpayer money to schools and programs not currently receiving it, which will increase total federal spending on higher education. According to the Congressional Budget Office, allowing short-term programs alone could cost half a billion dollars over the next decade.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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