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A large for-profit university is trying an emerging form of competency-based education with the launch this month of four online bachelor’s degrees that ditch the credit-hour standard.

Officials with the publicly traded American Public University System, which enrolls roughly 90,000 students, said the company isn’t chasing a fad with its foray into so-called direct assessment.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” said Cali Morrison, director of alternative learning at APUS. “This isn’t a pilot.”

Hundreds of colleges have worked on introducing competency-based credentials in recent years. But only a handful offer direct-assessment degrees, a more aggressive (and controversial) version in which students must demonstrate mastery of a degree program’s required competencies but do not have to progress through credit-based course material or be taught by faculty members in the traditional sense.

Another publicly traded for-profit, Capella University, was one of the first to gain approval for direct-assessment programs -- following shortly behind Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, which in 2013 was the first institution to get a green light. So far more than 1,000 students have graduated from Capella's direct-assessment degree tracks.

Laureate Education’s U.S.-based Walden University also has a direct-assessment program. But the for-profit Walden’s program is for graduate students. And while other for-profits, particularly Rasmussen College, have substantial competency-based degree programs on the books, APUS follows Capella as one of the first to go big on direct assessment for undergraduates. (Note: This article has been changed from a previous version to correct references to Capella.)

Advocates for competency-based education have been careful to shepherd its growth while seeking to prevent low-quality providers from entering the market and sparking a backlash. So even while APUS is generally considered to be a solid performer among for-profits, deeply negative views about the sector among consumer groups and Democratic policy makers might make some nervous about the company’s move into competency-based education.

However, American Public has yet to secure approval of the new degrees from the feds, which means students will not be able to use federal financial aid to help pay for the programs.

Critics of for-profits generally focus on federal money that flows to what they say are often lower-quality offerings that can saddle students with debt while not helping them get a well-paying job. But without being able to accept Pell Grants, federal loans or even military tuition benefits (at least for now), that won’t be a problem for the competency-based programs at APUS.

Yet despite its lack of federal aid eligibility, American Public is confident the degrees will be affordable. Tuition in its new “Momentum” programs is a flat rate of $2,500 for a 16-week term in which students can complete an unlimited number of competencies.

“The more they complete, the more valuable their degree,” said Morrison.

The company’s national reach could help it achieve a scale that so far has been rare in competency-based education, several experts said, with the notable exceptions of Western Governors University and a few others that enroll several thousand students and are still growing, including the University of Wisconsin System.

Most competency based programs remain fairly small, in part because of the complexity of explaining how the model works to students. But APUS may have an advantage in tackling that challenge.

“For-profits have money for marketing,” said Charla Long, executive director of the Competency-Based Education Network, a group of colleges that formed in 2014 to help its members develop competency-based credentials. “It really is encouraging, provided it’s done in a high-quality manner, to see an institution with commitment and resources to try direct assessment.”

Federal Roadblocks

One reason relatively few colleges have tried direct assessment is that the Obama administration at times sent mixed signals about competency-based education.

The Obama White House and high-ranking officials at the U.S. Department of Education were big supporters, saying the delivery method can be particularly good for adult and returning college students. But critical audits by the department’s Office of Inspector General about competency-based education and the federal approval process for this form of credential, including an as-yet unreleased audit of Western Governors, have had a chilling effect on colleges and accreditors.

For example, in 2015 the Higher Learning Commission, the largest regional accreditor, temporarily froze its approval of new competency-based offerings after being dinged by the inspector general. New direct-assessment degrees in particular were stuck in limbo.

In response to the uncertainty, Long said some colleges instead opted to create competency-based programs that rely on courses and credits while waiting on the regulatory environment to catch up.

However, last November the Higher Learning Commission approved APUS’s new direct-assessment degrees. And while it’s unclear whether the Trump administration’s Education Department will favor this form of credential, APUS is hoping to make a go of its direct-assessment programs even without federal aid.

American Public appears well suited to competency-based education, said Richard Garrett, chief research officer at Eduventures, a higher education research and advisory firm. That’s because of APUS’s size, history of relatively low tuition and high enrollment numbers of veterans and active-duty members of the military, who may be attracted to direct assessment because it is a way to recognize the skills and knowledge they picked up while serving, said Garrett.

“If anyone can pull it off at scale,” he said, “they’re the ones to do it.”

Regular and Substantive

APUS is now offering four direct-assessment bachelor’s degrees, in criminal justice, fire science management, emergency and disaster management, and retail management. Each of the programs requires mastery of 61 or 62 competencies.

An important eligibility requirement for the programs is that students must hold a previously earned associate degree, either an associate of arts or of science.

As a result, by offering the equivalent of the last two years of a bachelor’s degree, the program in some ways is an adult degree-completion track. And adult students with an associate degree under their belts tend to be more likely to succeed than those who enroll without any college experience.

Students in the new degree programs must complete a minimum of three competencies in a 16-week term. They can register for up to 12 at a time, completing as many as they can during the term. New competencies can be added any time until the 14th week of a term.

By completing 15-17 competencies during a 16-week session, APUS said students will be able to earn a bachelor’s degree in four terms -- roughly 15 months -- with a total tuition price tag of $10,000.

American Public is telling prospective students to expect to commit 16-20 hours per week to their studies. The university system also is encouraging students to have on-the-job experience in the degree’s subject area.

The programs feature an adaptive platform provided by RealizeIt, which the company customized for APUS. Adaptive learning is a buzzy technology that personalizes the student experience. In a direct-assessment program, that means giving a boost to student engagement, in part through helping students work through learning material to help them pass assessments.

“We had to make a lot of changes,” said Manoj Kulkarni, RealizeIt’s chief executive officer, when describing how the platform will work for APUS compared to in a course-based setting. “Competency-based education and traditional education seem like two different universes.”

Students take a pre-assessment at the start of each competency under the APUS model. A subject-matter expert will work with them to develop a plan to study content to prepare for a final competency assessment, in which students will be asked to apply knowledge and skills to a real-world situation.

The faculty role in competency-based education is a sticking point for its critics, including the department’s inspector general, who has raised questions about whether there is “regular and substantive” contact between students and faculty members in some programs.

APUS said each student will work closely with both a faculty mentor and subject-matter experts, with mentors being assigned to students for at least a full term. Students also will have access to career services advisers.

Kevin Forehand, APUS’s program director for retail management, said he volunteered to be a faculty mentor for students in the direct-assessment track. His role will be as a “guide on the side,” Forehand said.

“I’ll have the opportunity to be with the student through their entire time” in the program, he said. “They know exactly who they can come to, and that’s me.”

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