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Feds Weigh College Financial Aid for Competency Based Learning

An interesting letter went out Tuesday from the U.S. Department of Education, asking interested colleges to submit applications for approval for federal financial aid for students in programs that take into account alternative measures — and not just credit hours — in awarding degrees.

“This is a key step forward in expanding access to affordable higher education,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in announcing the plan. “We know many students and adult learners across the country need the flexibility to fit their education into their lives or work through a class on their own pace, and these competency-based programs offer those features – and they are often accessible to students anytime, anywhere. By being able to access title IV aid for these programs, many students may now be able to afford higher education.”

The “Dear Colleague” letter to colleges and universities is arguably a tacit endorsement of competency-based learning, burnishing the credibility of the instructional approach.

“It’s like a big neon sign saying ‘use this,’” Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education policy at the New America Foundation, told told Inside Higher Ed. (As the news site points out, Laitinen also wrote a report last year that contended higher education relied too heavily on credit hours as a measure of a student’s status toward completing a degree.)

Competency-based learning is a key component of many online education programs, and it’s gaining some traction at both the K-12 and higher education levels. But it hasn’t won over everyone. Tom Vander Ark, who blogs on school innovation for Education Week, had a thoughtful piece on competency-based learning — and some responses to the common arguments of its critics — back in November.

One of those concerns is that students spend too much time being tested and not enough time actually learning. But Vander Ark says that issue should resolve itself as the tools educators use to assess student learning become more sophisticated. Fewer bubble sheets, and more “game-based and adaptive learning,” Vander Ark writes.

The usefulness of competency-based education should be weighed differently for K-12 vs. higher ed. For younger students, it could help them stay motivated by allowing them to learn at their own pace. At the college level, it could potentially make earning a degree more cost effective for both the tuition-paying student and the institution. But while there’s still much to be hammered out in how those big ideas translate into instructional realities, it’s clear that plenty of policymakers are recognizing the potential.



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