If the federal government will fund competency-based programs through Title IV dollars, how should it think about regulating these programs?
Whenever a disruptive innovation emerges—and online, competency-based learning deployed in the right business model is a disruptive innovation—it doesn’t look as good as existing services according to the old metrics of performance.
Disruptions tend to be simpler than existing services; they start by solving undemanding problems. As a result, the sector’s leading organizations often dismiss them because they don’t look terribly good in comparison to the way people have traditionally thought of quality. But they also redefine the notion of what is quality and performance.
As such, they don’t fit neatly into existing regulatory structures and often create new ones over time. Judging them by the old regulations can also limit their innovative potential by trapping and confining them to replicate parts of the existing value propositions of the old system rather than deliver on their new value proposition.
For online, competency-based programs, the old metrics are those focused on inputs. These new programs often lack breadth, generally do not do academic research, and they don’t have grassy green quads and traditional libraries. Assessing them based on these criteria along with specifying their faculty members’ academic credentials and course requirements doesn’t make much sense, nor do one-size-fits-all regulations that govern how students interact with faculty online, especially given that more interaction in online courses isn’t always better for students. Regulations limiting the geography in which approved programs can serve students are counter-productive as well for a medium that knows no geographic boundaries.
But giving carte blanche to providers with complete deregulation and access to government dollars doesn’t make much sense either.
Because the country’s dominant higher education policies have focused on expanding access for more than half a century—allowing more students to afford higher education regardless of true and total cost through mechanisms such as Pell Grants and other financial aid programs, subsidies, and access to low-interest student loans—the government has in essence been a customer of higher education that has paid for the enrollment of students, not their successful completion and placement into good jobs. Accordingly, considered as a whole, the traditional higher education sector has followed its incentives and expanded access but had highly uneven student success rates at best.
(Next page: Incentivizing outcomes is trickier than it sounds)