Today the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance for higher education institutions that offer competency-based programs in which students learn at their own pace – but that currently do not offer federal student aid. The Department is reminding institutions that they may be eligible to provide title IV funds under the direct assessment provision of the Higher Education Act of 1965, and it has provided step-by-step instructions on how to apply.
In recent years, some institutions have recognized the potential of innovative learning models and developed creative programs that allow students the flexibility to learn at the pace that makes sense for them, both in career-technical and degree programs. Students progress in these competency-based programs by demonstrating their achievement of specific skills or knowledge. Most competency-based programs fit into traditional learning models that measure progress in credit or clock hours, but an increasing number do not. Some of these programs would like to offer their students title IV aid – including Pell grants and federal student loans – but have been unable to do so.
Additionally, many institutions have shown interest in developing competency-based programs but want to offer federal student aid, and they have hesitated to move forward without knowing if that is possible. Today's letter addresses their concerns and provides guidance on developing programs that are likely to be title IV eligible.
"This is a key step forward in expanding access to affordable higher education," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "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 anytime, anywhere. By being able to access title IV aid for these programs, many students may now be able to afford higher education."
The guidance also notes the potential of competency-based approaches to shorten the time to degree completion and reduce costs, while providing an opportunity for students and workers to develop the knowledge and skills they need to compete for high-paying jobs or advance in the workplace. Going forward, the Department plans to collaborate with accrediting agencies and the broader higher education community to encourage innovative approaches, identify promising practices, and gather feedback to inform future policies.
A copy of the guidance can be found on the Department's website: http://ifap.ed.gov/dpcletters/GEN1310.html