A Boost to Competency-Based Education

Arne Duncan’s Department of Education appears to have just opened the door much further to allow colleges to base graduation on competency measures – i.e. what students actually know – rather than on seat-time credit hours and traditional accreditation. In a March 19 letter the Department is encouraging colleges to request approval for degree programs that are not based on the credit hour, with students in those programs explicitly eligible for federal loans. And just a few days before that the department approved Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) College for America, and made the new college eligible for federal financial aid programs. The SNHU venture will offer associate degrees nationwide and online at a cost of about $2,500 per year.

This is an important development, and comes on top of an announced reassessment of the credit hour itself. The green light from Washington could be the critical boost needed for the transition from accreditation of institutions to the credentialing of specific courses and measurement of student knowledge as the basis of higher education. Lindsey Burke and I have been among those calling for this change to unleash the kind of “disruptive innovation” needed to transform the traditional college model and drive down costs, and so give young Americans of modest means a real shot at moving up the economic ladder. If this transformation really takes hold, colleges will look very different by 2020.

It’s true that other institutions, perhaps most notably Western Governors University, have already been pioneers in competency-based education. But Duncan presides over a bureaucracy that has remained resistant to the spread of competency-based education, and so the WGU model has inspired fewer followers than many expected. The go-ahead for SNHU may change this and step up the momentum. But clearly there needs to be continuous pressure to push the federal government that remains an obstacle to entrepreneurs in higher education. That’s why in my last blog I urged the business community to step up to the plate.

Posted by: Stuart Butler

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