The U.S. Department of Education took a critical step forward today in moving towards a more flexible and innovative financial aid system—one that privileges (and pays for) learning, rather than time. In a letter released this morning, the Education Department let the world know not only that schools can award federal financial aid based on competency rather than seat time, but that the Department wants them to do so.
Up until now, the entire multi-billion dollar federal aid system has run on the credit hour. And while credit hours are useful for administrative functions like scheduling classes and determining faculty workloads, they are not so useful for measuring learning. (See our report Cracking the Credit Hour for more on the curious birth and harmful legacy of this time-based unit).
This shift in the Department’s stance has been seven years in the making. In 2005, Congress created an alternative path allowing federal financial aid to be awarded to a program that “in lieu of credit hours or clock hours as the measure of student learning, utilizes direct assessment of student learning (emphasis added).” While Congress didn’t give much detail about what direct assessment would look like, the general idea was that federal financial aid could be awarded based on the amount of learning a student had achieved, rather than the amount of time she had spent in class. Congress created this provision in large part to help an innovative, growing, and politically-connected institution, Western Governor’s University (WGU), receive federal financial aid.