Earlier this month Congress made its first moves in rewriting the Higher Education Act, including the House of Representatives’ passing a bill that would create greater federal support for and investigation of competency-based education.
The Education Department already allows some institutions to explore alternative teaching methods, including competency-based education and prior learning assessment, and recently decided to award some student-based aid for such programs. In green-lighting experimental school sites, the Obama administration wants to see whether these innovations would ultimately
“improve student persistence and academic success, result in shorter time to degree, including by allowing students to advance through educational courses and programs at their own pace by demonstrating academic achievement, and reduce reliance on student loans.”
We love the idea of students working at their own speed and taking advantage of consumer and educational technology to plot their individual learning paths, especially if such personalized learning can help save money on tuition and textbooks over time. Some have said that competency-based education could work particularly well for older and part-time students who may not be able to spend as many hours in lectures or classroom discussions as full-time students.
Yet competency-based education has inspired criticism because of a perception that it could lower academic standards or turn colleges into diploma mills. How would schools assess student mastery in, say, the tough-to-quantify humanities fields? How do you determine competency in degree programs that don’t train students for an explicit career path, such as nursing or IT? There’s also the challenge of ensuring that individualized learning will allow for developing skills that today’s employers—large and small, corporate and non-profit, startup and legacy—expect from graduates, including collaboration, writing and communication across multiple formats, and content and media literacy.
The House has approved two other bipartisan bills that would mandate financial counseling for federal student-loan borrowers and simplify how the government provides college information to prospective students. The three bills passed so far highlight the difference between the way House Republicans and Senate Democrats have approached revising the Higher Education Act: bit-by-bit changes versus comprehensive reform. It’s unlikely that Congress will reauthorize the HEA before it expires at the end of this year.