Tuesday, March 19, 2013


I can tell I’m getting older by what gets me excited.  There was a time when a story had to feature Winona Ryder and/or Paul Westerberg to get my attention.  Now I read about the Department of Education issuing a guidance letter on competency-based education and financial aid eligibility and get all worked up.

Reader, aging isn’t pretty.

Apparently, the U. S. Department of Education has gone on record saying that degree programs that use documented student competencies, rather than the traditional credit hour, will be able to apply for federal financial aid eligibility.  Southern New Hampshire University’s “College for America” program is the first on the docket.  

For those of us who sleep and breathe higher ed, this is huge (and very good) news.  

As I’ve mentioned a few times (cough), credit hours measure time, rather than learning or ability.  When a product is denoted in units of time, increasing the economic productivity of the enterprise -- without watering down the product -- is impossible by definition.  (That’s because productivity is denoted in units of time, too.)  When the rest of the economy realizes productivity gains every single year and higher ed doesn’t, a cost squeeze is a mathematical inevitability.  Yes, public disinvestment is a real factor, but even without that we’d be caught in a vise of cutting spending and increasing tuition.  It’s called Baumol’s cost disease, and it’s insidious.

Moving away from time and towards actual student learning offers a chance for a breakthrough.  If nothing else, at least it will break the mathematical logjam.

I have to admit, I’m curious about the mechanics of it.

From a community college perspective -- that is, from the perspective of a “sending” school -- I wonder about how transfer would work.  While credit hours don’t actually tell us anything about learning, they at least make certain kinds of bureaucratic work easier.  If a student does a year or two in a community college and then transfers to College for America, does anything come over?  Does the student have to re-test everything?  

How is faculty work denominated?  (Most colleges have a set number of “courses” or “credits,” which is part of the productivity logjam.)  How does the actual teaching work?  The one efficiency that the “herd thirty people into a room at ten o’clock” method has is the economy of scale.  If everyone is moving at a separate pace, presumably the economies of scale are lost.  What replaces them?

And what happens to students who transfer out?  A student who has demonstrated, say, 73 competencies gets tired of the program and wants to go to Mediocre State.  Assuming that Mediocre State is on the credit hour system and isn’t a national leader in outcomes assessment, how will that student land?  How will Mediocre State know what to do with her?

If the instruction is entirely modularized, do students lose a sense of continuity?  Is there a sort of
major or course of study made possible in this model that the credit hour system stifles, or would a college basically have to reverse engineer from the old model?  And if it does just work backwards, where’s the gain?

Presumably, the Department of Education would have to weigh in, eventually, on which outcomes are “college level.”  That may involve a level of academic judgment at the federal level unlike anything we’ve seen so far.  (Alternately, regional accreditors could do the same thing, but initially they wouldn’t have much basis for judgment.)  

I can imagine some unscrupulous for-profits jumping on this with unrealistic promises about what adults can learn quickly, and with not-too-subtle pressures on instructor/evaluators to grease the skids.  If it were up to me, I’d love to see the instruction function separated from the evaluation function.  Without that separation, the conflict of interest is just too great.

So there’s plenty of work to be done.  But I say “Bravo!” to the department of ed for giving a green light, and yet another in a series of “bravos!” to SNHU for stepping up.  The transition to the new system could be hairy, but if it’s done right, it could be a real breakthrough.  As Westerberg put it so many years ago, color me impressed.