Student aid change could mark shift in online education

Many in higher education say the traditional credit-hour model has been seen as restrictive.

Making federal student aid available to students enrolled in competency-based courses is more than an acknowledgement of legitimacy for nontraditional education, experts said, but rather a policy decision that could lead to a spike in competency-based classes, many of them online.

The U.S. Department of Education (ED), after months of anticipation from colleges that have long provided nontraditional education offerings, said March 16 that competency-based learning programs – not just those based on traditional credit hours, or “seat hours” – may be eligible for Title IV student aid, including Pell grants and federal student loans.

Before ED’s official announcement, government aid had not been available for those taking competency-based classes in which students can earn credit toward a degree based on prior learning.

The department’s guidance on federal aid for students in competency-based programs comes seven years after Congress first approved alternative educational systems that would award financial aid in lieu of credit hours or clock hours as the measure of student learning. Programs that “utilize direct assessment of student learning” could be eligible for student aid – the best example being Western Governors University (WGU).

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ED, in its letter to colleges and universities, “acknowledges that direct assessment has potential, limitations, and unknowns,” said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “Rather than shy away from the unknowns, however, the department seems willing to sit with them. The department’s willingness to work beyond its own borders and to grapple with uncertainty are welcome signs from a federal agency, indeed.”

The best news for proponents of financial aid for competency-based programs, Laitinen said, was ED’s willingness to work closely with accreditors and universities in creating an agreed-upon alternative to the credit-hour model, which has been criticized as outdated and inflexible for nontraditional students working toward a degree while holding down a fulltime job and raising a family.

“Too often communication between the Department and higher ed is one-way and strictly compliance focused,” Laitinen said. “[The] letter was neither.”

“This is a key step forward in expanding access to affordable higher education,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “We know many students and adult learners across the country need the flexibility to fit their education into their lives or work through a class on their own pace, and these competency-based programs offer those features – and they are often accessible to students anytime, anywhere. By being able to access title IV aid for these programs, many students may now be able to afford higher education.”

Fred Hurst, senior vice president of Extended Campuses at Northern Arizona University – a pioneer in experimenting with the competency-based model – said failing to provide the same financial aid options for nontraditional students who are at a disadvantage in a credit hour system was a roadblock for the effort to increase college graduates in the U.S.

“Our education system, from Kindergarten through college, is designed like an assembly line – every student is treated the same,” he said in a blog post on WCET’s website. “The problem is that every student is different.”

Besides opening up alternatives for those who don’t have the time or money to seek a college degree in the traditional way, mainstreaming competency-based learning programs could make education more appealing to a broader audience, Hurst said.

“Competency-based education can ensure that each student gains true competency, not just squeaking by with a D,” he said.  “Research tells us that most students are turned off to learning by middle school.  Competency-based education can bring back the joy of learning to many students.”