Last month the U.S. Department of Education announced a new round of experimental sites to test new competency-based education (CBE) models. There is a lot of excitement in the CBE community about this development, which will provide welcome regulatory space for aid distribution formulas, an important structural component to any new form of delivery.
However, buried further down in the department’s press release was an additional announcement that has received scant attention, but which made my pulse quicken:
To continue efforts to increase opportunities for Americans to strengthen their professional skillset, the department is also announcing today that it will collaborate with the Department of Labor to develop a $25 million grant competition for an Online Skills Academy to support the development of a platform to enable high-quality, free or low-cost pathways to degrees, certificates or other employer-recognized credentials.
So here’s my question: might the Online Skills Academy be a first step to creating a new alternative pathway to a degree, one that actually creates a new higher education ecosystem that can sit beside and maybe improve our existing system? I know some people believe we should simply support existing public models to return them to a state of almost-free to students. But that cost would be enormous. And the current system is deeply flawed. Its success rate is not that great, the end product is increasingly suspect, and it renders some layers in the incumbent system winners, while others lose funding support.
I am instead thinking about a nationally offered, extremely low-cost, competency-based model degree program that includes stackable, industry-embraced credentials. One that is endlessly tailored to the student, whether an 18-year-old at a residential college or a 40-year-old single mother in an online program. A system that pays only for success, that creates a whole new ecosystem of providers and supports, and that puts students in control of what they need in order to master competencies and achieve their overarching learning goals.
This is an idea I’ve been thinking about for a while. In fact, at the request of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, I last year sketched out a concept for providing free or close-to-free higher education to anyone who wants it. The invitation to brainstorm was irresistible, the challenges to actually deliver such a thing are nearly insurmountable, and what I eventually produced raises more questions than answers. But to my question, “Can I write this as if I were Ruler-for-the-Day?” the answer was yes. And who can say “no” to that opportunity?
What follows below is a slightly modified version of what I provided.
You said I could think big and without constraint, so here goes.
The goal I‘d set out would be to create a “free to all” path to two- and four-year college degrees for anyone who wants one. A college education would be reframed as a fundamental civil right for all Americans seeking a better life in this fast-changing, interconnected global economy.
The challenge would make available to everyone and to every interested organization the core degree experience. By making a high-quality, industry-endorsed degree program virtually free and leveraging just a portion of federal aid dollars, we could create a new learning ecosystem for higher education that sits alongside the incumbent providers (and also allows many of them to reinvent and/or improve themselves) while also creating a springboard for a host of new innovative learning pathways.
I am not suggesting we create a national curriculum for all of higher education, but that we create a national alternative for those who don’t want or can’t afford a traditional option. We could have a debt-free option for all those who want it.
Far from creating a larger role for government, the initiative would invite a wide range of existing providers, entrepreneurs, community-based organizations and others to get into the business of education, while ensuring that the outcome is of high quality and trustworthy and that the government only pays for actual success. For those who want to ensure high-quality education as a right, this model expands access at lower cost.
For those who want to protect the private sector (and inversely keep a small role for government), this model invites entrepreneurial initiatives and approaches.
In my model, which I’m calling “The National College Degree” (NCD) for the moment (I know – there are better brand people than me out there), the core educational experience would be competency-based and cost nothing to the student. NCD would have these components:
- An associate degree and bachelor’s degree option. Each would have a mix of core competencies and field-specific competencies (the latter being akin to a major).
- The associate degree path would have three mileposts (each equivalent to one third of the way to completion) and the bachelor’s would have six such mileposts.
- Mileposts would be credentialed and stackable.
- The competencies would have to have the endorsement of major employers or their associations.
- It would have to be direct-assessment-based: time is irrelevant and mastery non-negotiable.
- The delivery of content would be online and use OER resources.
- The assessments would be project-based, using intelligent simulations.
- Peer-to-peer learning capabilities would be built in.
- Intelligent-learning systems would be available for students needing/wanting them.
- Automated assessments and machine grading would be built into the platform.
- A high level of rigor and quality would be demanded.
- All graduating students would take a national exam (like the Collegiate Learning Assessment) and the degree would only be awarded when the student mastered the competencies in the degree program and had a satisfactory score on the exam.
- The system would have to include a secure integrity component – we have to know the student getting the degree did the work and the assessments.
- The system would have a career-pathways component utilizing cutting-edge labor-market analytics to map competencies to the range of jobs to which students might aspire.
The eventual program would also have to define a system for competency-unit size (an alternative to the credit hour) that all NCD providers would have to accept. This way we create the new competency-based “exchange rate” and we do not replicate the transfer-credit inefficiencies and irrationality of the credit-hour system, one that results in enormous waste today.
All of the necessary components are out there in some phase of development. The NCD pathway needs to establish the aspirational standard for higher-ed quality, not the floor. It won’t be easy to get a degree because the quality is not compromised; there’s no sliding by.
Imagine posing this as a challenge grant. The challenge grant would be to the consortium that could create what is outlined above so that it meets those broad goals, and creates a system for which there is almost zero cost to deliver. I’d set a goal: cost of delivery to be no more than $200 annually per student for the two-year degree and $400 annually for the four-year degree.
As a result, the developers would have to think about an open-source platform like the one developed by edX, and open-source learning resources like those created by Khan Academy. They would likely need game-design and immersive-learning partners to create the project-based simulations for assessment. There would need to be corporate partners who would collaborate in the creation of competencies and who would then declare they will endorse the NCD and accept it in hiring. More on this near the end.
The US government would make the NCD free to all, covering the $100 per-student annual price of delivery through government subsidy.
Now the powerful part: any person, any organization, could wrap services around the NCD. So we could see intentional, residential-learning communities where the education is free (the NCD), but students pay for the coming-of-age experience, living on some form of traditional campus. We could see faith-based organizations and inner-city churches offering NCD support services in church basement programs (as happens with ESL). We could see high schools integrating the NCD. States could save enormous amounts by reorganizing community colleges around the NCD. Entrepreneurs could build NCD support companies for students who need a-la-carte support services (tutoring in math, help in writing, study groups…). Community agencies like the Urban League could become NCD sites. Individual teachers could offer their services (think Amazon’s Mechanical Turk) with user reviews and ratings that are transparent to all. Really effective faculty would earn an ever-growing following. A whole new learning eco-system could evolve. I could see NCD+ degrees in which organizations build atop NCD.
What I like about this idea is that it implicitly says to the incumbent providers, “Use the NCD or not, but show us how your outcomes stack up against NCDs.” To all others, it says, “Go ahead and build support infrastructure around the NCD and expand access (but know you will only be rewarded for success).”
People would not have to enroll in an NCD program. Wealthy people could still enroll in elite institutions. Less-wealthy students could still take their traditionally delivered loans and Pell Grant dollars to traditional institutions, as they do today.
If I want the values-based curriculum and experience of a denominational school, I can select that for myself. Those wanting to root for a D-I football team can still attend that flagship university. But NCD would lift everyone’s game. Community colleges could elect to reinvent themselves around it or offer compelling new alternatives. The vast tier of middle-level institutions would have to declare what their graduates know, show how they know it and make themselves at least as good as NCD. You are not creating a national curriculum for all of higher ed. You are creating a national alternative for those who don’t want or can’t afford a traditional option. You could have a debt-free option for all those who want it.
The money part. In that ecosystem, people who provide services around the degree pathways need to get paid. I would pay Pell-eligible students $500 each time they hit a milepost, no matter how long it takes to get there. The whole cost of the associate degree would be $1,500 plus $200 in delivery cost. The bachelor’s would be $3,000 plus $400 in delivery cost. The system would only pay for performance. The student could use the $500 to pay providers within the ecosystem or keep the money themselves.
The Education Department would have a “pay the provider” escrow system in which the qualified NCD student could enroll with an ecosystem provider, but the money would only be released to that provider when the student successfully passed the milepost. Think of it as an Educational PayPal. The provider bears the risk, but knows it will be paid if the student is successful.
Think of the benefits:
- The government only pays for success (it spends billions on failure now);
- No one is deprived a degree because of cost;
- Quality is ensured – no grade inflation (no grades – mastery or not) and assessment is validated (using the CLA-like exam).
- We create a whole new educational ecosystem that at least runs parallel to the current higher education system, but also helps improve it.
- The government would save billions in Pell when NCD scaled.
- College becomes a civil right for all Americans.
The well-designed system would not have to be maintained by the government if you wanted to keep government out of it, but it could be a department within the Education Department or contracted out. (Take just $1 billion of the $153 billion in Pell and you’ll have money to spare with this system, while easily covering all the cost of maintaining the system.)
This is a moon shot, but not as complicated or far away as you might think. A lot of the moving parts exist today. We have emerging competency-based delivery models, powerful new learning platforms, ever-improving adaptive learning systems, greater desire among employers and industry to be involved, and bipartisan support for new approaches.
This is not an entirely new idea. Consider, for example, the administration’s 2009 proposal for an Online Skills Laboratory. The $500-million idea was almost funded, but healthcare reform trumped it. However, note the similar thinking:
Create a New Online Skills Laboratory: Online educational software has the potential to help students learn more in less time than they would with traditional classroom instruction alone. Interactive software can tailor instruction to individual students like human tutors do, while simulations and multimedia software offer experiential learning. Online instruction can also be a powerful tool for extending learning opportunities to rural areas or working adults who need to fit their coursework around families and jobs. New open online courses will create new routes for students to gain knowledge, skills and credentials. They will be developed by teams of experts in content knowledge, pedagogy, and technology and made available for modification, adaptation and sharing. The Departments of Defense, Education, and Labor will work together to make the courses freely available through one or more community colleges and the Defense Department’s distributed learning network, explore ways to award academic credit based upon achievement rather than class hours, and rigorously evaluate the results.
You said “Ruler-for-the-Day.” And while I have skated over the myriad challenges and ignored the political realities of trying to get something like this done, I am pretty convinced there is a way to create a new higher education ecosystem for those who cannot flourish in the one with which we live today.
I don’t have any details on the newly announced Online Skills Academy. But to the extent it could provide a prototype for new systems thinking about higher education, it stands to be as powerful as the more-discussed CBE experimental sites that are in the foreground of the press release and subsequent discussion.
I think there is a more subtle, but critically important dimension to the concept outlined above. So much of our discussion and debates over higher education center on curriculums, content and skills – the heart of what education offers, many would argue. But those are increasingly free, easy to replicate and scalable. The messy, expensive and complicated parts of education are the human dimensions. Conceptually, the National College Degree makes the ostensible core of the education experience close to free and devotes more funds to providing students with the human support that works best for them, paying only when that support proves itself effective.
It is not an argument against our incumbent models, but an alternative pathway for those whom the current models don’t work very well. If the degree can be shown to be of genuinely high quality, it will challenge all of us incumbent providers to be better at what we do as well.
Paul LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University.
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