Sen. Mike Lee is introducing a bill Thursday that would overhaul the federal government's current plan for distributing aid to college students by allowing individual states to identify, based on their own criteria, which schools are worthy of receiving such funding.
"The big picture, 50,000-foot objective, is to increase access to higher education, to make higher education more accessible, and more affordable, for more people -- especially among the middle class and lower-income Americans," Lee told the Washington Examiner in an interview in advance of the bill's release.
Lee's proposal is a bit of a bank shot, because the federal government exerts influence over the higher education system indirectly. Under the current system, federal student aid programs rely on certain private organizations known as accrediting agencies to verify which colleges should get subsidized. In order to avoid financing scams or "degree mills," the federal government will only help pay for tuition at schools that have been accredited by accrediting agencies that have the approval of the Department of Education.
If the Utah Republican's bill passed, then states would be able to accredit institutions based on their own criteria, and students in those programs would also qualify for federal student aid.
"What we want to do is give states the option to create a separate accreditation system that would operate in tandem with, or parallel to, the existing system," Lee said. "It adds both to the number of higher education options available to students and also to the diversity of options."
Lee does not attempt to set the criteria that states would use for accreditation, which leaves the door open to state governments accrediting brick-and-mortar institutions as well as online models, such as the MOOCs (massive open online courses) that have emerged in recent years.
"You're also creating more competition and that generally leads to greater affordability in the marketplace," he said.
The bill figures in as part of Lee's "conservative reform agenda." He suggested during a speech at the Heritage Foundation in October that education reforms were needed to "giv[e] underprivileged parents and children access to the same opportunities that wealthy Americans take for granted.