Change aid to support competency education

In calling for innovation in higher education, President Obama praised awarding college credit based on learning rather than “seat time.” Competency-based education lets students “learn material faster, pay less and save money.”

That’s true, writes Deb Bushway, chief academic officer of Capella University, in an Inside Higher Ed essay. However, federal financial aid — built around credit hours — will need to change. 

. . . requirements around weeks of instructional time simply do not work with a direct assessment model that focuses on what the student is learning, not the number of weeks it takes them to do so. Additionally, an examination of artificial, time-based barriers to completion highlights the need to reinstate year-round Pell Grant funding and explore the elimination of annual loan limits. The current funding rules around both the Pell Grant program and the Stafford Loan program prevent ambitious students from moving more quickly through their programs and increase the likelihood that students will have to pause their education for a term or more in order to gain additional aid eligibility.

Capella was the first university to receive U.S. Department of Education approval to offer competency-based bachelor’s- and master’s-degree programs, Bushway notes.

Measure learning, not seat time

It’s time to “boldly go” beyond the credit hour, writes Allen Goben, president of Heartland Community College in Illinois. In a series of meetings, Goben asked faculty, continuing education professionals and education, business and industry leaders to imagine starting a higher education system from scratch. They suggested replacing credit hours with assessment of learning outcomes. Students could “stack” learning modules, courses, certificates and degrees as they move toward their goals.

• A robust learning and prior learning assessment structure would be developed . . . Students who already have certain knowledge or skills would be allowed to move on to other learning experiences . . .

• If needed, lower testing fees would be used to document already-acquired knowledge and skills while comparatively higher fees would be charged for full instruction and instructional support, so that people and organizations offering these services would be able to sustain themselves.

• A thorough career and interest inventory and advising structure would fuel all goal setting, planning and monitoring, as well as adjustments in student learning and progress toward eventual career, college and life success.

• A tremendous mentoring program would anchor the approach where classroom efforts, lab experiences and self-guided tutorials would be complemented by apprenticeships, internships and one-on-one and/or small group mentoring.

• All of education would be built around the learner and learning needs, and this would require a high degree of interaction and personalization as each learner’s needs were explored and supported.

If higher education were based on learning outcomes, there’d be no need for the traditional “silos of liberal arts, career/technical/vocational education, allied health and continuing education,” concludes Goben.