In December, the U.S. Department of Education put schools on notice that it wants to conduct "experiments that will improve student persistence and academic success, result in shorter time to degree, and reduce student loan indebtedness." The department's examples included:
- "Allowing flexibility in how institutions provide Federal student aid to students enrolled in competency-based education programs where progress is measured on the basis of how much has been learned, rather than measures of time."
- "Allowing Federal student aid to be used to pay for assessments of prior learning and other processes to evaluate students’ knowledge."
A group of 17 schools took the request and ran with it. What are they proposing? Here's a look at five areas where the schools want flexibility in order to experiment, as pitched to the Department of Education in a joint document.
Right now, the government definitions of "attendance" — a standard that must be met to qualify for financial aid — frequently means spending time in a classroom, often in programs revolving around a traditional academic calendar (see below). This poses problems for competency-based education, the schools say. They argue that working students who might benefit the most from competency-based education need flexibility that current definitions of attendance do not provide: "Requiring students to engage in some kind of weekly activity to 'punch the clock' so they can maintain eligibility for financial aid is neither efficient nor effective." In an experiment, the schools would seek a waiver from current definitions of attendance.
2. Satisfactory academic progress
Maintaining eligibility for federal financial aid under current rules means both completing coursework at a satisfactory pace and achieving a certain grade-point average. To measure progress, schools often look at the number of credit hours completed as a percentage of those attempted. But schools arguing for flexibility in this area say students could be their own worst enemy if they attempt too many competency areas while only finishing some of them. The difference, the schools point out, is that federal aid would only be awarded for demonstrated learning. In other words, the schools say, students shouldn't be penalized for attempts that the government isn't paying for.
3. Academic calendars
As it stands, the government requires schools to define an academic year. Financial aid is then distributed to students based on progression through that academic year. The schools say that tying competency-based learning to a rigid calendar doesn't make sense, since students are making progress on their own time tables. Rolling start dates and a lack of traditional breaks also mean that tying down students to an academic calendar in order to fulfill federal rules is counterproductive, the schools say. Even the idea of a school week is an obstacle, they maintain, contending that requiring some academic activity on at least one out of seven consecutive days is not a good match for competency-based education.
4. Credit hours
The schools also say that the traditional system of credit hours is ill-suited to competency education. They argue for an experiment where financial aid is disbursed according to the number of competencies demonstrated during a certain period. An experiment in this vein, they say, would help determine whether the risk of fraud was reduced because aid would only be disbursed based on demonstration of student learning rather than mere enrollment.
5. Hybrid programs
Current rules allow financial aid for students who are enrolled in degree programs based on competency or on credit hours — but not for hybrid programs. While students can take courses from both types of programs, federal financial aid can only be awarded to one type. The schools contend that forcing students to pick between two types of programs is an obstacle to the department's goal of shortening the time to a degree because students cannot necessarily choose the method that makes the most sense for each graduation requirement.