Competency-Based Education Advances With U.S. Approval of Program

Last month the U.S. Education Department sent a message to colleges: Financial aid may be awarded based on students’ mastery of “competencies” rather than their accumulation of credits. That has major ramifications for institutions hoping to create new education models that don’t revolve around the amount of time that students spend in class.

Now one of those models has cleared a major hurdle. The Education Department has approved the eligibility of Southern New Hampshire University to receive federal financial aid for students enrolled in a new, self-paced online program called College for America, the private, nonprofit university has announced.

Southern New Hampshire bills its College for America program as “the first degree program to completely decouple from the credit hour.” Unlike the typical experience in which students advance by completing semester-long, multicredit courses, students in College for America have no courses or traditional professors. These working-adult students make progress toward an associate degree by demonstrating mastery of 120 competencies. Competencies are phrased as “can do” statements, such as “can use logic, reasoning, and analysis to address a business problem” or “can analyze works of art in terms of their historical and cultural contexts.”

Students show mastery of skills by completing tasks. In one task, for example, students are asked to study potential works of art for a museum exhibit about the changing portrayal of human bodies throughout history. To guide the students, Southern New Hampshire points them to a series of free online resources, such as “Smarthistory” videos presented by Khan Academy. Students must summarize what they’ve found by creating a PowerPoint presentation that could be delivered to a museum director.

Completed tasks are shipped out for evaluation to a pool of part-time adjunct professors, who quickly assess the work and help students understand what they need to do to improve. Southern New Hampshire also assigns “coaches” to students to help them establish their goals and pace. In addition, the university asks students to pick someone they know as an “accountability partner” who checks in with them and nudges them along.

Students gain access to the program through their employers. Several companies have set up partnerships with Southern New Hampshire to date, including Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield and ConAgra Foods.

The Education Department is grappling with how to promote innovation while preventing financial-aid abuses. Southern New Hampshire, whose $2,500-a-year program was established last year with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has served as a guinea pig in that process. But other institutions are lining up behind it, hoping to obtain financial aid for programs that don’t hinge on credit hours.

The U.S. under secretary of education, Martha J. Kanter, issued a statement on Thursday praising College for America as “an example of the kind of innovation we hope to see across the nation.”

Southern New Hampshire’s low-cost, competency-based approach is similar to that of another institution, Western Governors University. But Western Governors has chosen to convert its competencies into credits.

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