U.S. Department of Education Encourages Competency Based Learning

The U.S. Department of Education is encouraging colleges to explore the use of "competency-based" (or "direct assessment") learning and recently released a letter outlining how colleges could do so.

Inside Higher Ed reported that the department's letter was issued just as officials planned to approve a direct assessment application from Southern New Hampshire University's College for America to participate in federal financial aid programs. The college would be the first to test this new model of learning.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, colleges have been able to apply for federal aid based on direct assessment since 2005. What makes the letter significant is that it clarifies how colleges can develop competency-based programs and actually encourages them to do so, suggesting that the Education Department is willing to look beyond the traditional learning model of in-classroom seat time or credit hours.

"It moves away from time as a proxy for learning, and that is key," commented Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Supporters of the new competency-based model are optimistic about what this could mean for higher education.

"This is a key step forward in expanding access to affordable higher education," said U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan in a written statement quoted by Inside Higher Ed. "We know many students and adult learners across the country need the flexibility to fit their lives or work through a class on their own pace, and these competency-based programs offer those features."

Despite the potential benefits, however, some education leaders are hesitant to stray from the traditional classroom model. As a result, under secretary of education Martha J. Kanter assured reporters that Education Department officials would meticulously evaluate competency-based programs before granting approval, noted The Chronicle of Higher Education. The biggest concerns from critics have been fraud or misuse of federal aid money as well as employers' views on the new approach.

As part of the approval process, programs must demonstrate that their competencies are equivalent to credit hours and accreditors must agree with this assessment. According to the letter, competency can be demonstrated through measures such as projects, papers, examinations, presentations, performances and portfolios. The department has promised to work with colleges and accreditors to test and tweak the new method as well as come up with new approaches for competency-based learning.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation and other influential philanthropists will meet next month to provide a space for accreditors, state regulators, department officials and colleges to come up with ways to promote competency-based learning and prevent fraud.

Compiled by Heidi M. Agustin


"Applying for Title IV Eligibility for Direct Assessment (Competency-Based) Programs," ifap.ed.gov, March 19, 2013

"Beyond the Credit Hour," insidehighered.com, March 19, 2013, Paul Fain

"Student Aid Can Be Awarded for 'Competencies,' Not Just Credit Hours, U.S. Says," chronicle.com, March 19, 2013, Kelly Field

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