Postsecondary Trending Now: Competency-Based Education

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When the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed both report on a development on the same day, you can bet it’s “trending now.” That happened last week when the US Department of Education made a significant policy move, issuing its long-anticipated invitation to colleges and universities to experiment with competency-based programs.

Between now and September, additional higher education institutions are invited to seek approval to offer federal financial aid to students in degree programs that measure learning in alternative ways not reliant on the completion of credit hours. A press release outlining the expansion also invites institutions (for the first time ever) to propose combinations of direct assessment and credit hour coursework in the same degree program. Additionally, institutions may propose to let students use federal financial aid to pay for prior learning assessment, which could shorten the amount of time needed to attain a degree.

These changes constitute extensions and expansions of the department’s Experimental Sites Initiative, which began in 2011. Since then, a small number of pioneering institutions have received approval to offer federal financial aid to students enrolling in their competency-based programs. Two of those institutions are grantees of NGLC’s Breakthrough Models for College Completion, College for America of Southern New Hampshire University—the very first institution the DOE approved to offer federal financial aid for a competency-based program not crosslinked to credit hours—and the Personalized Learning Division of Northern Arizona University. The DOE signaled that an expansion was likely last December, when it requested input via a “Dear Colleague” letter to help in the shaping of this invitation. 

Last week’s announcement couldn’t have been more timely from NGLC’s perspective. It coincided with the launch of the residential portion of the 2014 Breakthrough Models Incubator, in which senior executive teams from nine colleges and universities converged to hear from experts and begin planning their own competency-based programs for launch in 2015. My colleague Kristi DePaul noted the coincidence last week in her blog post on last week’s proceedings.

When Southern New Hampshire University’s President, Paul LeBlanc, spoke to the Incubator participants, he closed with a short video of some of College for America’s earliest graduates discussing what the program meant to them. If you’re interested in what the flexibility of a competency-based online program can do for a working adult, check out the video below.



The potential for competency-based programs to speed up students’ time to degree completion and to reduce costs seems to be catching on across the political spectrum. In another encouraging development last week, the US House of Representatives passed HR 3136. This bill would create a demonstration project for experiments with competency-based education at up to 20 colleges and universities. It passed on a bipartisan vote, and the White House provided a statement of support.  

Let’s hope this trend is well on its way to becoming a widely available solution to the conundrum of cost, support, and quality for many more of those aspiring to complete college degrees!