WASHINGTON – Competency-based higher education’s time may have arrived, but no college has gone all-in with a degree program that qualifies for federal aid and is based on competency rather than time in class.
Colleges blame regulatory barriers for the hold-up. The U.S. Education Department and accreditors point fingers at each other for allegedly stymieing progress. But they also say the door is open for colleges to walk through, and note that traditional academics are often skeptical about competency-based degrees.
All sides of this debate were on display at a Thursday event hosted by the Center for American Progress, which also released a white paper  on competency-based education as a potentially disruptive innovation. Panelists noted that even the much-heralded model of Western Governors University maps its competency-based degrees back to credit hours , although university officials typically prefer the term “competency units.”
A federal law Congress passed in 2005 cleared a path for WGU to pursue “direct assessment” of student learning, allowing the university and other institutions to participate in federal aid programs without tracking credit hours. But WGU opted not to use direct assessment, in part because of worries about whether employers and accreditors would accept competency-based degrees, according to the panel.
No other institution has given direct assessment a whirl, or tried to follow WGU’s lead in tying competency to credit hours.
“Who goes first?” asked Eduardo Ochoa, assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the Department of Education.
The federal government isn’t standing in the way, he insisted. Regulations pose some “hurdles,” Ochoa acknowledged. But he said the Obama administration supports quality competency-based approaches, which can expand student access while trimming college costs and the amount of time it takes to earn a degree. “The department is looking to see competency-based education develop and flourish.”
Ochoa said colleges should first work with their accreditors to smooth out any kinks, by demonstrating to their peers that competency-based programs are "academically viable." And he said administrators and faculty members on accreditation site-visit teams are often hard to win over on competency.
Federal regulations, however, will not stop colleges from going the competency route, he said. They have several options, including the exemption created for WGU.
“It’s a loophole big enough to drive a truck through,” Ochoa said.
That message, however, may be a new one for the department, observers said. And federal officials haven’t been prodding colleges toward competency-based credit, at least until now.
Excelsior College, for example, has at times been frustrated by what its leaders see as federal barriers to experimentation with competency-based programs.
The nonprofit online college, which was the sole institution featured on the panel, is a pioneer on competency and prior-learning assessment. Its associate degree in nursing is fully assessment-based. That approach works in part because the college only admits to the program students who have worked as paramedics or in other health-related fields, meaning they already have clinical experience. Students take a high-stakes capstone exam at the end of the program, which lasts two and a half days, and includes real patients.
Excelsior tried to have the nursing program classified as a competency-based program, John Ebersole, the college’s president, said via e-mail. That way students could receive federal financial aid.
“This was denied,” he said, and “forced us to spend over a million dollars to create an online option."
Ralph Wolff is president of the senior college commission of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, a regional accreditor. He said during the panel discussion that the federal government remains focused on the credit hour as the primary way of tracking student progress. But that said, Wolff said colleges can still pursue competency-based programs.
“It can be done,” he said. “And it can be done within the existing accrediting framework.”
Part of the problem, Wolff said, is that federal student aid is based on time in class, both online and in classrooms. And there are some good reasons for this, he and other panelists agreed. For example, monitoring students’ progress toward a degree can be tricky in competency-based programs.
“Is there portability if a student drops out?” Wolff asked. “Credits protect students.”
One key to the expansion of competency-based education will be the setting of fair guidelines that are applied systematically across all of higher education, said Amy Laitinen, a panelist who is a policy analyst with the New America Foundation and a former official at the Department of Education.
For those guidelines to provide adequate quality assurance, Laitinen said, they should be externally validated by nongovernment entities, such as employers and disciplinary bodies. Those groups should define what, exactly, is a competency, she said, and they should “set a really high bar.”