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Rethinking the regulation of competency-based education

Aaron Lacey May 18, 2015

Over the last several months, my colleague, Chris Murray, and I spent a great deal of time considering the current regulatory challenges facing competency-based education (CBE) and possible strategies that can better accommodate and evaluate the growing number of CBE programs across the country.  Our thoughts and conclusions are captured in our recently released paper, “Rethinking the Regulatory Environment of Competency-Based Education.” The paper was released May 15 by the American Enterprise Institute’s Center on Higher Education Reform as part of a series of papers commissioned to examine various aspects of competency-based education.

CBE models, already offered at a number of higher education institutions, award credit based on student learning, not time spent in class. When a student can demonstrate mastery of a particular set of competencies, he or she can move on to the next set. 

As we note in our paper, despite the considerable potential associated with these innovative offerings, CBE programs face “regulatory barriers that not only fail to encourage competency-based learning but in fact impede its progress.”

Our paper examines current or proposed regulatory frameworks for the management of competency-based programming at the state, accreditor, and federal levels, and we recommend strategies for improving state, accreditor, and federal oversight of CBE programming, including the possible formation of an independent advisory body to review such CBE programs across the country and provide clear, detailed, and coordinated recommendations to all levels of government.

Here’s our full list of recommendations:

  • Where state authorization frameworks make specific reference to credit hour thresholds, regulators should consider whether such thresholds are indeed necessary and, if so, whether they might be defined in an alternative manner that could accommodate those forms of CBE that operate independently of the credit hour (in other words, direct assessment programming). Additionally, as state policymakers discuss reforming funding formulas for public postsecondary institutions, they should consider whether alternatives to enrollment-based funding models would, among other things, facilitate the growth of competency-based programming.

  • An independent advisory body that would serve all institutional accreditors, regional and national alike, should be formed. Armed with expertise relating to competency-based programming, this advisory body would bring experience, consistency, and efficiency to the review of such programming across the country. Moreover, the broader mission of this advisory body would be to provide clear, detailed, and coordinated recommendations to all levels of government and substantive feedback on the intersection of innovation and regulation.

  • The U.S. Department of Education should develop a distinct regulatory framework for approving and managing aid for direct assessment programs without reference to credit hour or instructional time concepts.

As we observe, “[t]here is little question that competency-based programs have the potential to lower education costs, facilitate access for underrepresented communities, and produce highly qualified graduates…  But there are certain preconditions for competency-based programs to fulfill such promise, including the need for postsecondary regulators to develop frameworks that permit programs to evolve and flourish, all while ensuring adequate and appropriate oversight.”

We hope our REGucation readers interested in CBE will find the paper informative and thought-provoking, and encourage you to look into the other papers in the series.

Aaron Lacey is a partner in Thompson Coburn’s Higher Education practice, and editorial director of REGucation. You can find Aaron on Twitter (@HigherEdCounsel) and LinkedIn, and reach him at (314) 552-6405 or alacey@thompsoncoburn.com