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Senate panel is examining higher-education reforms

Fort Lewis College is monitoring the online experiments

WASHINGTON – Emboldened by recent successes on a bill on secondary and elementary education, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is tackling challenges facing higher education.

The negotiations could inspire changes at Fort Lewis College.

Barbara Gellman-Danley, president of the Higher Learning Commission, told the committee that attempts to include innovative methods of teaching and assessment in the accreditation process have been hampered by disagreements between government agencies such as the Department of Education and the Office of the Inspector General.

Committee members and those testifying agreed that tools such as online learning could make college more accessible and relevant for low-income and minority students.

Students are able to use financial aid only at colleges and universities approved by accrediting agencies such as the Higher Learning Commission. Standards for approval are based mainly on the number of credit hours students are required to undergo. Advocates of reform say those standards should include assessments that measure student competency.

“Employers are tired of students coming out of four-year institutions and not knowing how to write or read a spreadsheet,” said Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, one of a handful of accredited schools using nontraditional methods such as competency-based assessments to measure learning outcome.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo, joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in cautioning that the institutions on the forefront of such methods have no incentive to keep tuition costs low.

“We’re very concerned about maintaining quality for our students and making sure that we could continue to meet the standard by incorporating such methods,” said Fort Lewis College President Dene Kay Thomas, who was in Washington for meetings on the Native American Indian Education Act.

Thomas said nontraditional methods of instruction and assessment will be included in FLC’s next strategic planning session. Thomas’ primary concern is getting Congress to pay for the costs of out-of-state Native Americans who attend FLC tuition-free under a compact to provide free education for Native Americans from across the country.

On the advice of Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the committee’s chairman, Thomas is trying to include language to accomplish her mission in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

mbaksh@durangoherald.com. Mariam Baksh is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.

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