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A Path Forward For Higher Ed Innovations Such as Prior Learning Assessment

Published:  August 22, 2013
Today, as the President announced his new plan to make college more affordable, one of the three broad goals in his ambitious agenda focused on promoting innovation and competition in higher education. Plans like these are typically light on the details, asking for more investment – see the President’s Pre-K plan – and calling for legislative changes that are unrealistic in today’s political climate. Fortunately, this part of the plan seeks to capitalize on an existing policy tool that can help spur innovation by removing regulatory barriers: the Experimental Sites Initiative. 
For those who haven’t read through Title IV lately in the Higher Education Act, you may be scratching your heads and wondering what exactly experimental sites are. Well, in the 1992 Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Congress gave the Department of Education a powerful tool to test and refine innovative ideas in higher education. This provision within HEA now states that:
The Secretary is authorized to periodically select a limited number of additional institutions for voluntary participation as experimental sites to provide recommendations to the Secretary on the impact and effectiveness of proposed regulation or new management initiatives.
As Amy Laitinen elaborated in last year’s Cracking the Credit Hour:
With this language, the Department can create a small, controlled, voluntary virtual laboratory of “experimental sites” on which it test particular […] policies to see if they work, how they work, for whom they work, and under what conditions they work. It can get a sense of how the policy could be abused and create parameters that would prevent such abuse. It can then take the results of these experiments to Congress, so that lawmakers can adopt policies to encourage the growth of the most successful experiments at a larger scale.
With many of the innovations happening in higher education, statutory and regulatory barriers exist that prevent schools from offering students financial aid for enrolling in innovative, low-cost alternatives to traditional college coursework. Experimental Sites allow the Department to waive these barriers for a small group of participating institutions to, as Amy highlights: 1) test to see if they work, 2) control for potential abuses and pitfalls, and 3) use the results to advocate for informed policy recommendations that call for systemic change.
While this authority has existed for over two decades, the Department has not made much innovative use of experimental sites. The majority of experiments the Department has approved over the years have focused on reducing institutional burdens associated with administering financial aid, rather than piloting more innovative and affordable educational models. While changing leadership and legislation over the years have largely been responsible for their limited use, there is now a unique opportunity to leverage this policy tool.
One of the innovations the President highlighted involves using federal financial aid to support students seeking academic credit for prior learning. Prior learning assessment comes in several different forms, including commonly utilized tools such as Advanced Placement and College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests. It can also encompass things like portfolio assessments and evaluations of training students may have received through their employers or the military. While there are Department regulations that currently prevent financial aid from paying for prior learning assessment, experimental sites would allow the Department to waive these regulations for institutions willing to work with students to give credit for prior learning.
Experimental sites offer a concrete way to help change institutional and student behavior in a way that leads to better student outcomes. As the Department moves forward with this initiative, designing experiments that conclusively measure student outcomes and cost-savings will provide the critical information needed to implement comprehensive policy changes.
Keep checking in with Higher Ed Watch for more background and information about Experimental Sites, as well as the latest in new experiment development.
For more about the data implications of the College Ratings system proposed in the President's plan, see Clare McCann's post also featured on Higher Ed Watch.

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