A common theme among education reformers is that idea that what we need to prioritize in higher education is innovation. We have too many people who need to go to college and it’s costing them too much money to do so. They’re a lot older than traditional students and they have other responsibilities. We need to find new ways to help them develop the skills, and earn the degrees, that they need.

A big barrier to reform, however, is that policy mostly supports traditional higher education, specifically the credit hour accumulation of academic credit.

The federal government distributes financial aid to traditional schools, or academic institutions that attempt to behave like traditional institutions. A full-time student takes about 15 credits, representing time spent in class, a semester. After about eight of those semesters he’s got enough credits to graduate. We basically treat learning in terms of time spent in classrooms attempting to learn, not the accumulation of knowledge and skills.


But what if we had a way to grant degrees, and measure knowledge, honestly and respectfully, based on what people actually learned? And what if we could encourage colleges to do this well.

It might be possible. Welcome to performance-based education.

Last year the U.S. Department of Education asked American institutions of higher learning to come up with some other way to measure learning when the fed hands out federal financial aid money.

Several institutions—including the innovative Southern New Hampshire University, two-year public institutions like Broward Community College, and for-profits like Capella University—responded with some ideas for “competency-based experimental sites.”

According to a paper released by the institutions, the Department had “a particular interest in testing ideas that could improve student persistence and academic success, result in shorter time to completion, and reduce students’ reliance on loans, especially among lower-income students and students who struggle academically.” What this will really look like on the ground is unclear. As the institutions put it, ideas include,

Testing New or Alternative Federal Definitions of “Attendance” and “Satisfactory Academic Progress.” This experiment would allow institutions to receive a waiver from policies defining “attendance” as weekly substantive educational activities. These institutions could develop alternative ways to measure educational activities, frequency of student engagement, and activities more appropriate to learning-based models.

Decoupling Federal Financial Aid From Time-Based Measures
This experiment would allow colleges and universities offering competency-based programs to receive waivers from several sets of regulations concerning federal financial aid. Instead of tying aid to credit hours attempted and earned, aid would be disbursed to institutions on behalf of students on the basis of competencies demonstrated during a period.

Recognizing Hybrid, or Mixed-Modality, Programs Using Traditional and Competency-Based Education
Existing federal policy allows the award of federal financial aid to students only if the degree is either credit-hour-based OR competency-based. Allowing students to use federal financial aid to pay for hybrid programs would encourage institutions to develop and offer competency-based courses and improve efforts to define educational quality in terms of measurable individual student learning. Making federal aid available to pay for hybrid programs could shorten time to degree and generate financial savings for students, parents and taxpayers. Colleges and universities offering competency-based programs would receive waivers from policies restricting hybrid or mixed-modality offerings and allow students in traditional credit-hour programs to take competency-based modules and students in competency-based programs to take traditional credit-hour courses.

This is pretty open-ended. But that might be the point. Part of the impetus for reform comes from the idea that there are “different learners’ with “different needs.”

Americans are frustrated by the current system. A 2012 Gallup/Lumina Foundation Poll found that some 87 percent of Americans believe “students should be able to receive college credit for knowledge and skills acquired outside of the classroom.”

Even the traditional measures of learning, based on time spent in the classroom, didn’t have much to do with education needs, even for students in traditional colleges. The academic credit hour was (essentially) invented by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in the late nineteenth century as a way to award pensions to professors. No one argued seat time was the best way to measure learning; it’s just the way the system evolved.

I’ve pointed out before that the credit hour isn’t really the major problem with higher education, how a society measures learning is largely incidental; we’ve had universities for far longer than we’ve had credit hours.

But an attempt to experiment with alternatives may spur on some useful changes in thinking about what college is for and what we want graduates to do.

This is an investigative project to determine whether awarding education money using different measures of learning could work. Which alternatives might yield better results? Let’s see what happens here.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer