To be sure, assessing college students based on competencies (rather than the number of credit hours earned) is difficult and messy. Competency-based education requires a huge re-think in higher education that undoubtedly raises hundreds of questions about quality assurance, standards, and accountability. But to work through those dilemmas, institutions need to try it out—and in order to do that, they need a little, er, big nudge from federal officials.
Institutions are funded based on credit hours, not competencies. Without credit hours as a means of quantifying the education provided, institutions have no other mechanism for measuring their work for funding purposes. And without this money, students at these institutions miss out on financial aid dollars.
But there’s a way around this—a way that hasn’t been articulated clearly or loudly enough for institutions and accrediting boards to know. Eduardo Ochoa, assistant secretary of postsecondary education at the Department, spoke very matter-of-factly about this “loophole” earlier this month during a panel discussion, but in reality, it’s not very matter-of-fact to anyone outside of the Department’s walls.
The “loophole,” Ochoa said, exists thanks to a 2005 law that allows institutions to “direct[ly] assess” student learning, rather than accumulate credit hours. It was passed to help Western Governors University, a popular, online-only environment that allows students to pursue degrees at their own pace. But in the end, WGU decided against using it, in fear that its graduates’ degrees wouldn’t carry the same weight in the job market as their counterparts at other institutions.
There are three ways that colleges and universities can pursue competency-based education programs, according to officials:
- By implementing one within an existing higher education model, like WGU.
- By applying to the Department to award degrees based on competencies, rather than credit hours. The application would also require accreditors’ support.
- By applying for a waiver to create an experimental site that would allow the accreditor, rather than the Department, to approve the use of direct assessment.
The loophole isn’t without its troubles: Excelsior School of Nursing, the largest nursing school in the nation, has already tried to get the institution recognized as a competency-based program, but the application was denied. This is reason enough for public clarification and articulation of what this “loophole” is and what kinds of programs can fit through it. Excelsior is arguably one of the pioneers in competency-based education; if that institution can’t be recognized by the Department as a competency-based program, what institution can?
Federal officials must be more deliberate about their support and really foster the innovation that our higher education system so desperately needs. Beyond that, the Department, institutions, and accrediting boards also must work together to close this wide expanse in communication and identify ways to bring postsecondary education in line with the technological capacity, and demands, of today’s world. Only then can we begin to answer some of those difficult and messy questions.