Students enrolled in competency-based programs — as opposed to traditional time-based programs — at colleges such as Boston University might now be eligible for financial aid, according to a letter from the U.S. Department of Education issued Tuesday.
Heather Jarvis, a student loan expert who spoke about student debt relief at the School of Law in the fall 2012 semester, said credit hours have always been an inefficient way of measuring student learning.
“They show how much time a student spends in class but they don’t demonstrate what they’ve learned,” she said. “This decision means that schools can be more innovative in the way they measure their ability to teach, and it links federal financial aid to a student’s competency.”
The Department of Education letter defined competency-based programs as programs that directly assess student learning “in lieu of measuring student learning in credit or clock hours.”
An institution wishing to award aid to students in a program using direct assessment must apply, specifying the equivalent number of credit hours for the program in question, according to the letter. The application must also include how the number of hours was determined and that its institutional accrediting agency has also reviewed and approved the proposed program.
Jarvis said the Department of Education’s decision demonstrates that the U.S. wants universities to explore alternatives to the credit hour.
“This is really going to help schools be more innovative in how they deliver education,” she said. “It has the potential to really provide some lower-cost alternatives to students so that they can be awarded degrees based on what they’ve learned rather than how much time they’ve spent.”
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the Department’s decision is a step toward more affordable higher education, according to a Tuesday press release.
“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 any time, anywhere,” he said in the release.
Mark Kantrowitz, financial aid expert and FinAid.org publisher, said while changes in the system might not have a significant impact on colleges across the board, they will influence online programs.
“The traditional universities are still going to do the clock hours, but for online programs where there is not really a clock going, it will be more appropriate for them,” he said. “It allows for more flexible programs.”
Competency-based tests measure student learning in a different way than credit hours, Kantrowitz said.
“Someone could sit in a chair for a number of hours without actually learning,” he said. “It [competency-based learning] caters more directly to what was learned by the student as opposed to just going to a program.”
Kantrowitz said he believes the decision will lead to an increased number of colleges experimenting with online education.
Bianca Tamburello, a Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences junior, said students in competency-based learning programs should be eligible for federal aid.
“It doesn’t matter how long it takes as long as you comprehend the material properly,” she said.
Leah Baumann, a SAR senior, said classroom time provided by credit hour-based education has benefits over competency-based education, including opportunities to improve networking and discussion material.
“Competency-based programs show effectively if you’ve learned it, but there’s a lot of value to things you can learn in a classroom,” she said. “… I see more value in a classroom program versus just taking an exam on the material.”
Daniel Lopez, a College of Arts and Sciences senior, said although he is unsure how federal aid will directly affect students in competency-based programs, he is a proponent of the learning these programs offer.
“I think it places more of an emphasis on student and self and catering to each student’s individual needs,” he said “… Anything that is going to help competency-based learning or help shift toward a system of that emphasis is generally good.”
While the Department’s decision has the potential to make a significant impact, Jarvis said its effectiveness depends on the responsiveness of universities.
“We can’t continue to have a ‘one size fits all’ system,” she said. “There is a need for more affordable and high-quality education that isn’t just a matter of getting bodies in seats in classrooms … We really need to think differently about what people need to learn and how they can afford to get the skills that they need so we can all function as best as we can together as a community.”
Margaret Waterman contributed to the reporting of this article.