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Aurora Institute

Department of Education Wants to Talk CBE

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Dorothy Wax

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Design for Educational Equity

College LibraryAt a meeting this week in Washington, D.C., staff from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) met with staff at the U.S. Department of Education to talk about competency-based education (CBE). During the meeting, CAEL presented an abbreviated version of its CBE Jumpstart training to the eighteen DoE staff members. Jumpstart is CAEL’s Lumina Foundation funded initiative to help colleges and universities understand the basics of CBE and the changes that may be need at their institutions if they choose to pursue CBE programs.

The training led to a discussion in which DoE staff expressed willingness to interact with the institutions that are considering CBE, especially to discuss issues related to Title IV funding. In fact, they indicated that they are eager to engage and are looking for ways to do so. One option is for colleges and universities to use a special email address that has been set up for Title IV regulatory questions related to CBE: [email protected].

Those in the room represented the Office of Postsecondary Education, Educational Technologies, and Federal Student Aid, and many have been working on direct assessment as well as on the experimental sites for CBE and prior learning assessment.

One important suggestion they had for institutions was to make sure to involve your internal financial aid team early and often as you develop your CBE program. They pointed out that an internal discussion with a college or university’s financial aid office can usually shed light on how a CBE program may need to operate in order to meet Title IV regulatory requirements.

The discussion centered on areas where there may be perceived misalignment between CBE and Title IV, but these perceptions are sometimes wrong. For example, some institutions are operating under the belief that there is a requirement for weekly engagement between an instructor and the student. The reality is that there must be one day per week based in instruction, but even in traditional programs, students may not go to class for a week or more. The important thing is that the program provides for the instruction on a weekly basis, even if a student does not avail him or herself of it.

The DoE staff also noted solutions such as “non-term” financial aid for programs that are open-entry, as well as following regulations for correspondence courses in the case of programs relying on adaptive learning technologies (financial aid for such programs is available, but at a reduced rate).

The group also discussed how the current regulations exist to fit a very specific type of learning model. And that the intent of these regulations is to ensure protections for the taxpayer as well as the student. We as a field should work together to think through how these regulations might be redefined to allow for a very different approach to learning, while still offering those protections to stakeholders.

While the attendees at the session were clear that they want to engage with institutions, they were just as clear in saying that there are many statutory issues they cannot control, but they do want to be made aware of. They also talked about the need to protect both the taxpayer and the student, especially given expansion of Pell grants in 2010 which was not universally popular politically.

Overall, the staff was supportive of the current move toward CBE and said it would be good to have institutions that are being creative within the existing regulatory environment share their strategies with the rest of the field.

When asked about the staying power of CBE, the group was pretty much united in saying for CBE to take off and transform higher education, there will need to be a great deal of confidence that these competencies represent real learning, and assurance that the assessments being used can accurately measure competency.

Dorothy Wax is the Associate Vice President for Operations for CAEL. She manages CAEL’s CBE Jumpstart program, which is funded by the Lumina Foundation and is providing training to 21 institutions and systems of higher education on CBE.