The Trump administration is planning regulatory changes that would allow universities to attract federal funding for students based not on the amount of time they spend studying but on measurements of their ability.
The changes would support online platforms where colleges adjust teaching and assess competencies on a student-by-student basis. Such models can run afoul of existing student funding rules, which rely on time-based measures of progress such as credit hours and semesters.
The administration’s initiative is being cheered by online pioneers such as Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, whose rural on-campus population of 3,000 is swollen by 100,000 more online.
Dr LeBlanc said that he strongly agreed that the federal government needs some means of accountability for student aid dollars, but that measuring the time students spend sitting in classrooms was a poor method.
“Right now, what we seem to be comfortable doing is giving the same amount of aid for wildly variable learning,” Dr LeBlanc said.
Administration officials want to encourage such thinking, and hope that the process of rewriting the regulations will lead to suggestions from higher education leaders on how best to do that.
But the administration is leaving even allies such as Dr LeBlanc concerned that its zest for innovation may not be matched with a determination to prevent the abuses that may emerge in an experimental environment.
Concerns have centred on the role of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), one of several non-governmental bodies given authority by the Education Department to evaluate whether a college is providing an education worthy of federal student aid.
The Obama administration rescinded ACICS’ federal approval on numerous grounds, including its accreditation of two scandal-plagued for-profit universities that went bankrupt, leaving at least 30,000 students with worthless degrees and more than $400 million (£307 million) in debt. Trump administration officials, however, have taken steps to reinstate ACICS, even over the objections of Education Department staff.
They restored “a very bad accreditor of very bad providers”, Dr LeBlanc said. “I am worried that there isn’t enough attention being paid to consumer protection in this discussion” of new teaching and assessment models, he said.
While aimed initially at online forms of teaching, department officials said that moves toward competency-based education could have far deeper implications for US higher education. The department has been especially eager to promote programmes in which universities partner with local businesses, with students sometimes spending time at companies to learn skills directly from managers and workers.
Last week the US education secretary, Betsy DeVos, toured such an operation at Harper College, a two-year institution about 30 miles northwest of Chicago. Harper has apprenticeship programmes with local businesses in areas such as banking and finance, insurance, machining, cybersecurity, graphic arts printing and retail management.
In such settings, department officials said, student achievement could be measured less by grades and more by actual ability to perform a job. Moving that concept to other fields, such as English, psychology or other humanities, could be tougher.