Colleges: Federal sign up available for competency experiments

Competency-based experiments, once buried, get new life and could be huge opportunity for colleges and universities

experiment-congress-competencyFrom badges to skills pathways, more higher ed institutions are not only feeling the pressure to accept, but realizing the benefits of implementing, alternative credentials for a broad range of students. And in an initiative once slowly decaying, the Department of Education (DOE) is now offering volunteer institutions a chance to sign up for the Experimental Sites Initiative for some regulatory perks.

The Experimental Sites Initiative was created by Congress through the DOE to help develop innovative and effective policies related to federal financial aid. And in what could be a great boon for colleges and universities, those that participate can have waived regulatory and/or statutory financial aid requirements. The perk for Congress is taking what works and implementing those practices on a large scale for future policies.

In other words, these ‘experiments’ “give Congress a way to see how policies might work before they are implemented writ large, hopefully mitigating unintended consequences (Evidence-based policy-making?! Crazy talk),” writes New America’s EdCentral.

Up until now, the Initiative was largely unfocused, with no timeline, goals, and supposedly served as a mere regulatory waiver for a few small schools; but thanks to recent pushes by both Congress and President Obama on college affordability, the DOE is taking another turn with the Initiative, placing higher standards on the outcomes and better focusing the mission…as well as better encouraging institutions to sign up.

(Next page: The innovative experiments and competencies part of the Initiative)

Today [July 31,2014] the Federal Register made an official announcement inviting colleges and universities to take part in the Experimental Sites Initiative, and this document details the in-and-outs of the sites.

However, in the name of saving time, here are the three competency-based experiments as noted by EdCentral leaving out the fourth experiment on work study:

1.Prior Learning Assessment (PLA)—This experiment urges colleges to find ways to take into account credentials students have received through alternative means, and potentially allowing students to bypass classes they’ve already mastered; which, says the Council for Adult & Experiential Learning, could help students save time, money, and increase their odds of completing college. This experiment could be groundbreaking, simply because federal financial aid does not pay for PLAs.

This experiment would allow institutions to include ‘reasonable costs’ associated with PLAs (e.g. test fees) in a student’s official Cost of Attendance, which is used in determining how much federal financial aid a student needs,” says the New America Foundation. “This experiment would also allow students engaged in significant preparation for PLA—like preparing materials for a portfolio assessment, but NOT studying for or taking a test—to have up to three credits count towards their Pell Grant enrollment status. This experiment hopes to ask and answer a number of questions, including: What do assessments cost? How does PLA affect borrowing or completion? How do schools determine which PLAs to accept?”

2. Limited Direct Assessment—This experiment would allow institutions to use financial aid to pay for learning rather than time (as measured in credit hours) and allow students to “mix and match” credit hour- or direct assessment-based programs for financial aid. It would also allow developmental education programs to qualify for direct assessment, which is prohibited under current regulations.

3. Competency-Based Education—According to EdCentral, this experiment is “where we see the most innovative thinking from the Department.” For example, one part of this experiment allows direct and indirect costs to be paid and disbursed differently.

Another part of the experiment allows for a CBE definition of Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP). “SAP is essentially calculated by looking at credits completed versus credits attempted, a problematic requirement for self-paced CBE programs where instead of grades, students have either mastered or not mastered the material,” writes EdCentral. “This experiment allows SAP to be calculated by looking at credits completed over a longer period of time (an academic year), allowing students to move at their own pace without being penalized as they try to move forward more quickly.”

Finally, the experiment allows flexibility in instructional time. Though it requires that CBE programs have an academic year of at least 30 “weeks of instructional time,” there are many ways that institutions can support student learning outside of direct instruction, such as coaches, experts, and resources guides.

For a more detailed description of the experiments, read the post on EdCentral.

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.