Engineering Education: The U.S. Department of Education Releases Innovative Initiatives

The Department of Education (ED) has announced a new round of experimental sites, or ex-sites, to provide flexibility to design programs that serve students better.  The new ex-sites will promote competency-based education (CBE), as well as prior learning assessments and near-peer counseling among college and high school students.  Ex-sites give institutions the ability to be more creative about ways they can reduce costs and increase success in higher education.

Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell, said in a video, “To help more Americans succeed – and position our nation to lead – in the years ahead, we need to give students better, faster, more flexible paths to strong academic and career outcomes.”

The Department has had the ex-sites authority since 1992, and last summer, President Obama challenged us to think about how we could use ex-sites to increase innovation in higher education, including through CBE models that make it possible for students to get financial aid based on how much they learn, rather than the amount of time they spend in class. ED put out a request for information last December, asking institutions to send us their ideas about which statutory and regulatory flexibilities would allow them to increase student success.  A range of institutions and other organizations sent in suggestions, which informed the development of this round of experiments.

There are many examples across the country of competency-based programs already serving students, but the new flexibilities ED is providing should allow programs like these to grow with the support of federal student aid.  For example, Western Governors University has long provided students a competency-based program in a wide array of fields.

Southern New Hampshire University was the first to take advantage of a new option called “direct assessment”, which we are making more flexible in this round of ex-sites.  It will allow students to take some classes in the traditional format, while others under the competency-based direct assessment approach.

Other institutions, such as Brandman University in California, the University of Wisconsin system, Capella University, and Lipscomb University in Tennessee have designed new programs that they aim to tailor to work around an individual’s schedule, making them especially feasible to students balancing work and family responsibilities.

By taking down barriers that stand in the way of innovation, we hope to spur more institutions to try new approaches.  Yet at the same time, the flexibilities are coupled with new ways to safeguard federal student aid.    These ex-sites will also have a built-in evaluation component, which will give us insight into the outcomes of these experiments.  We expect that the lessons we learn will inform the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Full details about the ex-sites are available here (and will be published formally in the Federal Register).

Edgar Estrada is an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education, and a student at the University of California, Irvine.

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