The US Department of Education's recent move enabling students to use financial aid for programs not typically considered "college" landed without fanfare. But the pilot program could have a big impact on thinking about education beyond high school in New England, home to some of the best-known higher education institutions.
Today there are a growing number of postsecondary providers beyond accredited two- and four-year colleges and universities. By letting federal dollars flow to a handful of them, such as coding boot camps and massive open online courses, the department is recognizing that college attainment should be defined by what students learn, rather than how much time they spend at traditional higher education institutions.
This learning-based approach comes at a critical time. More than two-thirds of jobs will require postsecondary education by 2020, yet only 40 percent of Americans have at least an associate degree. Addressing this gap requires a paradigm shift in how we think about college.
For more than a century, we've assessed students' readiness to complete higher education by how many credit hours they've acquired. We need to overhaul the system so the key measurement of student progress is learning, not classroom hours.
How would this look? Imagine a structure without courses or credit hours as we now know them, in which students advance toward a degree by demonstrating they're competent at certain skills and in key knowledge areas. Once students master the requisite competencies, they graduate, regardless of how much time it takes. In this system, how and where learning is obtained — whether at elite residential colleges, through online programs, at libraries, or via unions and employers — matter less.
Shifting to a learning-based system should be one aspect of a broader overhaul to align higher education with 21st-century needs. We need a more flexible system, in which there are different higher-education models to serve different kinds of learners. And we need to rigorously measure programs to see if they deliver.
As a native New Englander, I know such a shift might seem improbable, given our deep higher-education traditions. But the region already has a pioneer in rethinking higher-education delivery — and measuring student progress based on competency. Southern New Hampshire University is an example of an emerging model in higher education – one where a traditional campus-based learning experience, serving 4,000 students per year, spawned an online college in the 1990s that now has more than 70,000 students.
The online delivery model, in turn, gave rise to College for America, through which students can earn their associate or bachelor's degrees in the time needed to master the required competencies. More than 3,000 students have enrolled in College for America since its inception two years ago, and more than 200 have received degrees. This competency-based approach has the potential to transform American higher education.
Without being anchored to the credit hour, students can accelerate the pace of their learning and more quickly earn a degree, thereby saving on tuition. Given this, it's telling that College for America's primary enrollees are midcareer working adults, recruited by — and often paid by — their employers.
Multitasking students aren't the only ones who benefit. All students deserve a higher education system that's more transparent about learning objectives and outcomes. And employers will gain from understanding the specific skills and knowledge prospective hires bring to the job.
New England has proven it can lead in rethinking college. The recent push from Washington can help propel additional change here, and elsewhere, so that students and our economy can reap the benefits.