When we consider how higher education is changing, most of us probably think about rising tuition. And that's a fair connection; after all, in-state tuition and fees at public four-year universities have shot up 81 percent in the last decade, and similar trends can be seen at private institutions and two-year degree programs.
But tuition increases aren't the only changes affecting our nation's higher education system. Student demographics are also evolving. The number of so-called "traditional" students -- young people who enroll in college full time upon graduating high school -- is on the decline. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, "non-traditional" students -- those who decide to earn a degree later in life, perhaps while working full-time -- are now the fastest growing segment in postsecondary education.
Together, these two very different trends are sparking widespread demand for new and innovative modes of delivering a quality postsecondary education at a more affordable price -- and states, institutions, and private entities are rising to the challenge.
Several states, including Kentucky and Wisconsin, are embracing competency-based models of education. These programs establish the skills a student needs to succeed in a given field of study, provide the student with all the necessary materials, and give him or her the opportunity to learn the materials with the help of tutors or instructional mentors at his or her own pace. Once the student is ready, he or she demonstrates competency in the subject manner through an exam.
Recognizing the amount of time a student spends in the classroom isn't the only way to measure learning, a growing number of colleges and universities now offer prior learning assessments. These assessments determine whether the knowledge a student has obtained through previous education or work experience merits college credit, helping students avoid the redundancy of taking courses they simply don't need.
Like competency-based models and prior learning assessments, online coursework provides another flexible alternative to the traditional college classroom setting, something that is particularly beneficial to non-traditional students who have family or career obligations. Instead of forcing students to deal with limited enrollment and high tuition, Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, provide students the opportunity to take the courses they want, when they want -- all from the comfort of home.
According to the Sloan Consortium's annual survey of online learning, nearly 7 million students took at least one online course during the fall 2011 term, an increase of more than half a million students over the previous year. Building on the popularity of MOOCs and online coursework, private entities are also offering general education classes online at a nominal fee, helping students complete prerequisite coursework or finish earning a degree faster and more affordably.
As we continue to prepare for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, we must ensure federal policies support these state and local efforts to challenge the status quo and pioneer new modes of education delivery. I remain concerned some federal regulations advanced as part of the Obama administration's package of "program integrity" mandates could stand in the way of the higher education innovation students want and so desperately need.
The heavy-handed Gainful Employment, State Authorization, and Credit Hour regulations will almost certainly prevent states and institutions from continuing to find new ways to offer students a quality education at a lower price. There is bipartisan agreement these regulations create unnecessary burdens for students and schools, and should be repealed. Rest assured the committee will continue working toward this goal in the coming months.