U.S. Education Dept. Official: Competency-based Schooling a Valid Focus for American Higher Education

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Competency-based education is an “important building block” in the push to make higher education more productive, but one of the biggest hurdles to its growth is figuring out how to allot financial aid in the absence of the traditional credit hour, a U.S. Department of Education official said Thursday.

“We do need to foster innovation to raise productivity in this environment in a way that maintains quality,” said Dr. Eduardo Ochoa, Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

“It’s not a matter of just pushing out more credentialed individuals, but men and women who have the knowledge, skills and abilities those credentials are supposed to represent,” Ochoa said. “Competency-based education is an important building block in this effort.”

Ochoa made his remarks at the Center for American Progress during a panel discussion titled “Competency Based Education: College Strategies for the Success of 21st Century Students.”

The discussion took place in conjunction with the release of a new issue brief on competency-based education written by Louis Soares, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Much of the discussion focused on the merits of competency-based education – a workforce development approach in which institutions of higher education award credentials based on what students can do versus what they’ve been taught or how many credit-hours they’ve amassed.

The approach was cast as being beneficial to employers for its ability to produce graduates able to do specific things to meet employer needs, and as a more cost-effective way for students to get skills without having to take extraneous courses not germane to their chosen line of work.

At the same time, questions remain about how institutions of higher learning can move toward competency-based education under existing financial aid formulas and within the current regulatory framework.

“The question is when competency-based assessment is divorced from time,” said Ralph Wolff, president, Western Association of Schools and Colleges, an accrediting agency.

“The big issue is going to be federal student aid based on time and based on credits, and if one were to look at … ability to demonstrate proficiency versus 15 weeks (of course-taking), then you have a very different approach,” Wolff said.

Ochoa said colleges and universities could move toward competency-based education within the existing regulatory framework in three different ways.

The first way is to tie competencies to a regular credit-hour, even if students self-pace, such as is done through Western Governors University, an online institution that developed its education programs in consultation with employers and industry experts.

The second is to obtain permission from the Department of Education under Title IV to run an “experimental site.”

The third, Ochoa said, is to use “direct assessment” in lieu of credit hours, which he said can also be done under Title IV.

But in order to pursue such alternatives, Ochoa said, an institution should develop a proposal with its accrediting agency first, then seek permission from the Department of Education.

“There is room for innovation and we really do welcome the opportunity to work with you,” Ochoa said to the higher education community in general.

Amy Laitinen, Deputy Director for Higher Education at the New America Foundation, said the Department of Education should set tough standards in order assure quality among institutions that opt to use the direct assessment approach.

“If I were the Department of Education, I would want the department to use direct assessment, but to create a really high bar for what institutions need to do to qualify for direct assessment,” Laitinen said.

One guideline, she said, would be to define the competencies and have those competencies externally validated by employers or others, so that institutions aren’t in the position of creating courses and judging whether those courses meet standards.

Wolff, however, cautioned against developing standards that are too constricting.

“We have to be careful of a one-size-fits-all or one-phrase-solves-all problems,” Wolff said.

Other speakers included Mary Lee Pollard, Dean of Nursing, Excelsior College, and Rebecca Klein-Collins, Research Director, Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

Pollard said her school developed competency-based education for nursing students but then had to “work backwards” to tie the competencies to credit hours. She said she planned to look into the options that Ochoa mentioned for alternatives to the credit hour “tomorrow.”

Klein-Collins cited a number of examples of institutions that have been delivering competency-based education, some as far back as the 1970s. They include Alverno College, which requires students to demonstrate competencies in all courses, and Brandman University, which has developed an assessment linked to competency in conjunction with the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile initiative.