Federal Competency-Based Education Experiments Can Help Low-Income Students Obtain Valuable Postsecondary Credentials

By Evelyn Ganzglass

On July 31, 2014, the U.S. Department of Education, using its Experimental Sites authority under the Higher Education Act, issued an invitation to postsecondary institutions to participate in experiments designed to test three competency-based approaches to improve student outcomes under federal financial aid.

Though they are open to all students, these experiments have the potential to improve postsecondary success and college affordability for the growing number of “non-traditional” students. CBE makes it easier for students with work and family responsibilities to learn on their own time and in a place of their choosing. Non-traditional students also often bring with them considerable work and life experiences (or “competencies”) that may give them a head start in a degree or certificate program. Giving “credit” to students for these skills (using a competency-based approach) can save them valuable money and time. The three competency-based approaches being tested include Prior Learning Assessment, Competency-Based Education, and Limited Direct Assessment. They have the potential to increase postsecondary attainment and college affordability among low-income students in the following ways:

  • Prior Learning Assessment (PLA): This experiment can accelerate time to credential for working students, returning veterans and others by making it easier to gain credit for knowledge and skills learned prior to enrollment. The experiment will allow the costs incurred for the assessment of prior learning to be considered part of a student’s “cost of attendance” calculation. The experiment also allows student’s time and effort spent on preparing materials for the PLA to count toward the student’s Pell grant enrollment status.  See examples of state and institutional policies and practices related to PLA in Giving Credit Where Credit is Due and Scaling Stackable Credentials, Implications for Implementation and Policy.
  • Competency-Based Education (CBE): This experiment will provide waivers to remove some of the time-based restrictions on the disbursement of Title IV aid so that funds are available to pay institutional charges as a student progresses through a self-paced, competency-based education program at his or her own pace. The experiment will allow disbursement of  the “direct costs” of attendance (i.e., tuition, fees, books and supplies) as a student completes the program’s required number of competencies and the “indirect costs” of attendance (i.e., living expenses) at regular intervals related to completion of a certain number of weeks of instructional time. Institutions will be required to develop clock or credit hour equivalencies for the competencies required in each program. Institutions will be able to evaluate a student’s “satisfactory academic progress” based on a determination of whether the student has completed sufficient competencies to complete the program within the maximum allowable timeframe under Title IV (i.e., 150 percent of the program’s published length).  
  • Limited Direct Assessment: This experiment, which can be combined with the others, provides flexibility for an institution to provide an instructional program under Title IV that combines “direct assessment” of student learning with credit or clock hour coursework in the same program. Currently, to be eligible for Title IV, a program must use either direct assessment or a  more traditional coursework approach. Importantly for under-prepared students, prohibitions against the use of Title IV aid for remedial coursework offered by direct assessment may be waived.

In this announcement, the U.S. Department of Education also invites proposals for an experiment that provides the flexibility to compensate federal work study students, who are employed as “near-peer” counselors, to high school students, especially those who are at risk and underrepresented, using solely federal funds (waiving the match requirement). 

Institutions have 60 calendar days to apply to participate in one of the experiments and, if selected, covered programs will be waived from selected federal financial aid rules discussed in the Federal Register notice. See the Experimental Sites Initiative website for more information.

CLASP applauds the Department for making these opportunities available and encourages institutions to take advantage of this opportunity to increase college success and affordability among the growing number of working, adult students.