Education Dept. Will Test Use of Student Aid in Programs Not Based on Credit Hour

July 23, 2014

In an effort to graduate more nontraditional students faster, the U.S. Education Department will test the idea of awarding student aid based on something other than credit hours, the department said on Tuesday.

The latest round of "experimental sites," which will be announced in the Federal Register this week, will allow participating colleges to award aid for competency-based programs, prior-learning assessments, or programs that blend direct assessment and credit-hour coursework. Such programs allow students to progress at their own pace and earn credit for work experience, which make them appealing to nontraditional students.

Institutions that are accepted into the experiment will be freed from certain regulatory and legal requirements that generally limit student aid to credit-hour programs.

The "sites" are part of President Obama’s sweeping college-affordability agenda, announced during a bus tour last summer. In December the Education Department called on colleges to submit ideas for the experiments.

Since 2013 the department has allowed colleges to apply to provide federal financial aid to students enrolled in direct-assessment programs on a case-by-case basis. But only a handful of programs so far have been approved to do so.

If the experiments prove successful, they could make it easier for competency-based programs to qualify for student aid, opening the federal coffers to a much wider swath of nontraditional programs.

Tuesday’s announcement came a day before the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on a bill, HR 3136, that would create a competency-based demonstration project. Late Tuesday the White House issued a statement of support for the bill.

Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation, said the joint actions show that "policy makers want to dig deeper and see what—if anything—works, for whom it works, and under what conditions it works."

"In a town not always known for bipartisanship or particularly thoughtful policy making," she said, "the movement for responsible, competency-based education innovation is a refreshing and exciting change."