In the postsecondary world there is growing interest in Competency-Based Education (CBE), a strategy that organizes learning around mastery rather than seat time. CBE is already considered a promising strategy in secondary Career Technical Education (CTE) because it allows students to learn at their own pace in a flexible environment and helps them develop the skills necessary to be successful in their future careers. However, a newly published audit from the U.S. Office of the Inspector General shows that, in order for CBE programs to thrive, the higher education community will need to ensure that students receive regular, substantive interaction with their instructors.
The target of the audit is the Senior College and University Commission (part of an accrediting agency called the Western Association of Schools and Colleges), which reviews and accredits postsecondary programs in California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. Among the Commission’s responsibilities is evaluating course content to ensure that the purposes, methods of delivery and measurement of learning are aligned with federal policy. These evaluations carry a lot of weight — programs are eligible to receive federal grant funding under Title IV of the Higher Education Act depending on the results of the evaluation — which is why the Inspector General audited the Commission’s review process.
While CBE has enjoyed bipartisan support, the Federal Government’s priority is to ensure that CBE programs are held to high standards of quality. That is why the Higher Education Act restricts federal funding depending on the way that educational content is delivered. Traditionally, academic content has been delivered in a classroom environment, which is considered “campus-based education.” Non-traditional methods of delivery can still qualify for federal funding, but the amount of funding is contingent on the quality of instruction.
CBE courses that are delivered off-campus and are supported by “regular and substantive interaction between the instructor and student” are classified as distance education. In contrast, courses in which education is self-paced and interaction between the student and instructor is limited are considered correspondence education. Correspondence education has implications for funding because students enrolled in such courses are only eligible for a half-time Federal Pell Grant Award.
At issue in the Inspector General’s audit is the way that the Commission classifies courses as distance or correspondence education. The audit found that the Commission did not sufficiently evaluate whether courses would be considered correspondence education, meaning that some courses could have been classified incorrectly. While the Commission does not have the authority to approve correspondence courses — this authority is outside of the Commission’s scope — it is still responsible for identifying them. After receiving the Inspector General’s audit, the Commission revised its policies and procedures to ensure that students in CBE programs receive regular and substantive interaction with their instructors.
The Shared Vision for the Future of CTE calls on states and institutions to “embrace postsecondary competency-based education models … to expand access for more learners, and provide more flexibility so all individuals can get the skills they need when they need them.” While the Federal Government has already created avenues to promote CBE in higher education, accrediting agencies should consider how they evaluate the methods of delivery for CBE programs in order to realize this vision.
Austin Estes, Policy Associate