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WASHINGTON -- A surge in new competency-based degree programs has created challenges for the accreditors tasked with approving them. They must seek to ensure academic quality without quashing promising ideas, while also dealing with sluggish and sometimes confusing guidance from the federal government.

That was the message from top officials of three regional accrediting agencies, who spoke to a group the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) brought together here.

Competency-based education needs quality control to really take off, said Barbara Gellman-Danley, who became president of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools two months ago. That’s because the entrance of “bad actors” -- low-quality programs that look like diploma mills -- could trigger a backlash.

“It’s our job to keep an eye on it,” Gellman-Danley said of competency-based education, “and allow it to happen.”

Colleges that try to create competency-based degrees are often venturing into new territory, for both faculty members and students. That is particularly true for “direct assessment” programs, a new entrant that does not rely on the credit-hour standard. There are no courses, teaching professors or grades in direct assessment.

Many of the proposed competency-based degrees are also novel for accreditors, said Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges.

Lipscomb University was the first SACS institution to submit an application for a competency-based program. Wheelan credited Lipscomb with nudging the accreditor to create a policy statement offering guidance about competency-based education to its members.

The three accreditation officials said their groups scrutinize new programs in three primary areas: methods of assessment, the qualifications and role of faculty, and what student supports are in place.

Gellman-Danley said the Higher Learning Commission has created a training program for its reviewers on direct assessment. Other regional accreditors have also conducted training on competency-based education.

SACS gave Lipscomb’s program a green light a year ago. Since then Wheelan said four additional institutions in the commission’s region have submitted applications. One, Texas State Technical College at Harlingen, is seeking to create a direct-assessment track.

Technical credentials might be better suited to competency-based education than the liberal arts are, said Wheelan, or at least easier for colleges to create and accreditors to approve. She said likely programs include computer sciences, maritime studies, and heating and air conditioning.

Even so, some traditional colleges are giving competency-based degrees a whirl. Lipscomb is a liberal arts university. And Gellman-Danley said the University of Michigan, one of the most selective public universities in the nation, is considering a program. And Michigan’s might be a direct-assessment degree, she said.

Long Slog

While many colleges are mulling direct assessment, few have moved forward. The U.S. Department of Education has granted approval to just three institutions so far.

The feds’ blessing is important because it allows programs to be eligible for federal financial aid.

The Higher Learning Commission has received relatively few “solid requests” for direct-assessment programs, said Gellman-Danley. Many of the applications are still tied in some way to the credit hour, she said, so they don’t qualify as direct assessment.

Elizabeth Sibolski, president of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, didn’t mince words when she described how the commission has worked with the department on colleges’ applications for direct-assessment programs.

The process “has been incredibly frustrating,” she said. “I am really rather disappointed.”

One institution in her region, which Sibolski did not name, has waited six months for an answer from the feds. The commission had approved the institution’s direct-assessment degree, she said, which “should have been a slam dunk for the department.” Yet federal officials had responded with a “never-ending series of questions,” many of which were duplicative of ones the commission had already asked as part of its approval.

However, Sibolski praised the department for providing guidance for its “experimental sites” on competency-based education. That initiative, announced in July, waives some rules for federal aid programs so institutions can test new approaches without losing their aid eligibility.

The department has conducted two conference calls on the competency-based education experimental sites, Sibolski said, which has helped set the expectations of colleges and accreditors.

Regional accreditors might benefit from a new specialized accreditor that focused on competency-based education, said Sibolski. She and the two other officials said a coalition of early adopters, such as the Lumina-led Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), could eventually morph into a specialized accreditor.

For now, however, it’s up to regional accreditors to work with higher education's two other primary regulators -- states and the federal government -- to oversee the expanding competency-based field, which everyone from President Obama to Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, has said they want to see continue growing.

“All parts of the triad are trying to figure this out,” said Gellman-Danley.

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