To “Direct Assessment” or Not to “Direct Assessment”

December 12, 2013 Pam Tate

The Department of Education's recent approval of federal financial aid for several competency-based degree programs is truly historic. For the first time, the "direct assessment" provision in the Higher Education Act is being applied to programs that are not based on credit hours (or hours spent in a course), but are instead based on assessments of what someone knows and can do.

This gets to the heart of CAEL's mission to serve adult learners. For almost 40 years, we have said that learning should be recognized in higher education, even if it doesn't occur in a traditional classroom. This is an obvious benefit to adults, since they often have years, or even decades, of learning from their life and work experiences - and much of that learning is college-level and worthy of college credit. Competency-based degree programs recognize this and will allow many more adults to complete their degrees in less time and at an affordable price.

We encourage every college to consider developing competency-based degree programs. Don't wait. Now is the time. The fact that the Department of Education is offering more ways to access financial aid for these programs will open the door for the low-income students who need it the most. Direct assessment options will offer exciting new pathways to a degree and we applaud those institutions sorting out this territory.

There are important questions still to be worked out, including standards of best practice, agreed upon definitions of competencies and their value, and even nomenclature. There are accreditation, regulatory, and transfer systems challenges. Even underlying student information systems necessary to support CBE programs are not yet in place. So there is both excitement and hard work ahead. Given its expertise and history, CAEL looks forward to partnering in the development of the CBE movement and direct assessment.

But we also would urge institutions not to wait for direct assessment to be sorted out. You can still do great work in the area of competencies and learning outcomes. Many institutions build programs based on competencies, but these institutions match them to courses and credit hours so they can operate in the existing structure of the institution and be eligible for financial aid without the need to qualify under the "direct assessment" provision. Think of it as a hybrid of competency and credit hour, an incremental step forward that will allow you to innovate and also better position your institution for an eventual step into direct assessment when it and the field is ready.

Some institutions are taking that plunge now. Others are not there yet, but want to start moving in that direction. Whatever the situation, do not to hesitate to find ways to recognize learning and move more adults toward degree completion through a rigorous and high quality competency-based process.