Making College a Better Bargain

Last month, the president published a "Plan to Make College More Affordable: A Better Bargain for the Middle Class." Promoting innovation and reducing regulatory barriers were key elements of the plan, and the president cited institutions like Western Governors University for our use of competency-based education. I applaud the president for his leadership -- we must create an environment that will foster, rather than inhibit, new approaches that focus on quality and affordability. A good way to foster innovation is to create a demonstration program for competency-based education.

It's a distant memory now, but until 15 years ago, college students enrolled in programs that were more than 50 percent online were not eligible for federal financial aid. In 1998, when it became obvious that the Internet was destined to play a major role in higher education, Congress approved The Distance Education Demonstration Program. This program allowed the Department of Education to waive various regulations and financial aid requirements for distance education, allowing colleges and universities to experiment and innovate. Over the course of the program, about 30 institutions, including Western Governors University, participated. It continued until 2008, when Congress applied lessons learned from the demonstration program and passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act (the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965), making all accredited distance education programs eligible for federal financial aid.

The Distance Education Demonstration Program and subsequent legislation had a huge impact on higher education -- they have increased educational opportunities for Americans, particularly working adults, whose lives and schedules don't allow them to attend college on a campus.

In 1998, distance education was the major innovation in higher education; today, it's competency-based learning. Implemented properly, competency-based education can help us address several of the key challenges facing higher education by increasing efficiency and reducing costs, improving our ability to measure learning outcomes, and shortening time to degree completion.

What is competency-based education? Sometimes referred to as direct assessment, competency-based education measures learning rather than time. Ideal for adult learners returning to college to complete a degree, competency-based learning allows students to take advantage of their experience and prior learning to move quickly through material they already know so they can focus on what they still need to learn. Rather than enrolling in courses that always take a set amount of time to complete, students complete courses as soon as they demonstrate mastery of the subject matter through an assessment--a test, paper, project, presentation. This allows students to accelerate their time to degree. For example, the average time to complete a bachelor's degree at WGU is about three years, compared to a national average of more than four and a half years.

Today's higher education regulations, with their reliance on measuring time, do not support competency-based education. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 did include a provision for competency-based education, but each program must be approved on an exception basis. This is a deterrent to institutions trying to develop competency-based programs because getting approval is costly and time-consuming -- only two institutions have successfully completed the approval process.

A demonstration program for competency-based education will allow the Department of Education to waive current regulations, allowing selected institutions to experiment with ways to measure learning and administer federal financial aid based on measuring learning. This demonstration project can then inform Congress of the changes needed in the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which will support real change and innovation in higher education while preserving academic integrity.

A helpful first step in the acceptance of competency-based education is to recognize and acknowledge that administering financial aid based on time is a fantasy. A couple of years ago, the Department of Education added more detail to the credit hour definition, specifying that it was equal to one hour in class and two hours outside of class per week for approximately 15 weeks. It is impossible to know how much time any student spends studying outside of the classroom -- this varies widely from student to student and from course to course. Furthermore, few college instructors take attendance, so there is no good way to determine how much time a student actually spends in the classroom either. It's a rare college student who didn't pass at least one class that he or she seldom attended. The sooner we recognize that time is not a good measure of learning or a good basis for awarding financial aid, the better. We need to find ways to directly measure learning and award financial aid based on learning. A demonstration program for competency-based education will enable us to:

  • Develop better ways to measure learning outcomes.
  • Encourage other institutions to develop competency-based programs by tearing down bureaucratic barriers to innovation.
  • Allow for development of new ways to administer financial aid based on learning.
  • Create a controlled environment for experimentation before passing legislation permitting widespread implementation of competency-based education.
  • Provide the experience and data that will allow Congress to write smart legislation.

We sit today on the cusp of another major shift in higher education. In 1998, the Internet was new, and we needed a demonstration program that would allow us to evaluate the efficacy and quality of online learning while developing ways to effectively administer federal financial aid. In 2013, online learning of all kinds is mainstream. It is now time to create an environment that will allow us to develop programs that will help us focus on improving quality, reducing cost, and truly measure outcomes. Establishing a demonstration program for competency-based education will enable us to do just that.