In his address on higher education last week, President Obama encouraged innovation, specifically mentioning the groundbreaking work being done to award college credit based on learning, not simply on how much time is spent in a classroom. Under the direct assessment method, colleges and universities like Capella, which recently became the first university to receive U.S. Department of Education approval  to offer competency-based bachelor’s- and master’s-degree programs that utilize direct assessment, can deliver high-quality education in a way that allows students to advance through their programs at their own pace and on their own schedule. As President Obama said, this allows students to "learn material faster, pay less and save money."
Using this model, the future of higher education can align specific competencies with the needs of employers as well as critical societal needs, while allowing busy students the flexibility to complete a degree.
However, there is still a lot of work to be done.
Even with the excitement around this new higher education delivery model, colleges and universities wishing to operate programs through direct assessment are still forced to work within the confines of an antiquated financial aid delivery system built upon concepts like the credit hour. Here is where President Obama’s higher education plan has an opportunity to enact real, lasting change that will spark innovation – and change the way we think about education.
Some of the necessary updates to federal financial aid programs are obvious. For example, requirements around weeks of instructional time simply do not work with a direct assessment model that focuses on what the student is learning, not the number of weeks it takes them to do so. Additionally, an examination of artificial, time-based barriers to completion highlights the need to reinstate year-round Pell Grant funding and explore the elimination of annual loan limits. The current funding rules around both the Pell Grant program and the Stafford Loan program prevent ambitious students from moving more quickly through their programs and increase the likelihood that students will have to pause their education for a term or more in order to gain additional aid eligibility.
In addition, policymakers should explore how a student’s academic progress can be measured apart from standards like traditional letter grades. Ultimately, federal funding rules need to reflect the move toward tying financial aid to student outcomes.
Obviously, there is a lot of work to be done to move the dial on a true direct assessment model. One way to address this is for Congress to authorize a demonstration project, or for the Department of Education to launch an experimental site initiative that will allow programs operating under direct assessment to examine the issues listed above, as well as others that arise. This will open the door to a better understanding of what federal financial aid changes make sense, and at the same time, allow institutions like Capella and Southern New Hampshire University to continue to innovate with direct assessment. It is shortsighted to believe that the current financial aid model supports the full potential of direct assessment. At the same time, it would be irresponsible to enact immediate, sweeping changes without the benefit of learning from those innovative institutions that are approved to operate direct assessment programs.
The emergence of direct assessment is a great step forward for higher education, but this is just the beginning. Colleges offering direct assessment cannot perpetually retrofit this delivery model into a traditional student funding model, nor can simply eliminating the credit hour requirement solve the issues that currently exist. Congress has already started the important process of investigating barriers that impede higher education innovation and efficiency. We should all work together to explore the opportunities President Obama outlined and pursue substantial, innovative change in higher education.
Deb Bushway is chief academic officer at Capella University.