US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions

Alexander Spotlights Innovations at Austin Peay University in Senate Hearing on Higher Education

Praises Clarksville, Tenn., university’s approach to remedial education, which allows the school to admit more students and move them through the system faster

Thursday, October 31, 2013Liz Wolgemuth 202-228-4729

WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 – The senior Republican on the Senate education committee today praised innovations at Austin Peay University in a hearing on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, and said lawmakers should look for ways to encourage similar innovations without creating mandates from Washington.

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said: “What I am I looking for is the way to encourage a culture of innovation in our 6,000 institutions without throwing a big, wet blanket that smothers universities with an order from Washington that might work at Austin Peay but might not work at the University of Maryland, that might be good at Yeshiva but not at Harvard. How do we do that – how do we get out of the way?”

Alexander explained that as governor of Tennessee in the 1980s, “we were worried about the number of students who were in colleges and universities who weren’t prepared.” So the state created a policy that allowed students to attend college courses but not to receive credit if they weren’t prepared.

“Well, it turns out 20 years later that probably isn’t the right thing to do,” Alexander said. “What our state is now doing is abandoning that approach and admitting more people and working harder to move them through the system faster. That seems to be working a lot better. So what seems to be a good innovation at one point might not be later, and it’s a caution to us that we should be careful about coming up with even a very good sounding idea here and expecting that it will work 10 years from now or imposing it on all 6,000 institutions around the country.”

Austin Peay president Timothy Hall was a witness at today’s hearing. Alexander told him: “I am extremely impressed with what you have done at Austin Peay and I think you are doing a tremendous job.

Today’s hearing on higher education innovations was the second in a series of hearings the committee is holding on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Alexander said: “Innovation for its own sake is not what we’re after. I think the goal of innovation in higher education is to: No. 1, improve student performance; No. 2, increase retention and graduation rates; and No.3 , do it in a way that reduces or maintains costs and encourages efficiency that benefits students and taxpayers.

“You would think we have the perfect environment to encourage innovation in higher education unlike most other countries in the world. In America, we think the American way is to have a marketplace and an entrepreneurial spirit….So that environment ought to produce the largest amount of innovation. I think it’s important to be reminded that innovation doesn’t always work.

“A second concern I have though is that one would think, at a time when the world is changing so rapidly, and we have this marketplace of 6,000 institutions, that we would be seeing more innovation. But there are some obvious things that perhaps we should do, to correct that. 

“One may be that the federal government is in the way. For example, with too many rules and regulations that consume time… There are also the definition of the credit hour; not having the Pell grant available year-round; and federal aid rules that don’t allow students to accelerate through course work. I’d like to hear your comments about that, whether these are impediments or whether there are other impediments that we, the federal government, have erected that make it more difficult for you to innovate.

“The one area that seems to me that may be obvious for more innovation – and I think I understand a lot about why it hasn’t happened, but it seems to me it has to happen—is a more efficient use of time and facilities at colleges and universities.

“George Washington University’s former President, Stephen Trachtenberg once told me this. He said: ‘You could run two complete colleges, with two complete faculties, in the facilities now used half the year for one.  That’s without cutting the length of students’ vacations, increasing class sizes, or requiring faculty to teach more.’”

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