As readers of AEIdeas know, American higher education is at an inflection point. State appropriations are declining nationally, tuition keeps rising, and student loan debt is ballooning. Families are beginning to question whether college is still worth it. As traditional institutions struggle to retrofit their old business models for a new era, new approaches like MOOCs and competency-based learning are picking up steam.
The crisis of confidence provides an opportunity to play around with “what-ifs.” In today’s American, professor Reuven Brenner of McGill University provokes readers with a thought experiment: What would happen if just one generation of four-year college students took only three years to complete their degree? The benefits of entering the labor force a year early compound rapidly—adding an estimated $2.4 trillion in wealth by the fortieth year after just one class’s expedited graduation. Now think about what would happen if everybody finished a year early.
Brenner insists that students wouldn’t learn any less, and even suggests that many disciplines can be mastered in far less time. We’d need to create a system that focuses less on seat time and more on the actual accumulation of knowledge, says Brenner. What we find particularly interesting is not only how you make higher education shorter, but how do you make it go faster.
That’s what made this week’s announcement from the Department of Education intriguing. Since 2005, a provision of federal law provided access to student financial aid eligibility for so-called “competency-based” programs, where students receive credits by proving what they’ve learned—regardless of how long it took them to learn it. Congress created the “direct assessment” provision specifically for Western Governor’s University, a competency-based online college, but WGU never used it. Until recently, no one had.
That changed when Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) applied to the Department with its “College for America” program—an entirely competency-based associate’s degree program. SNHU’s president, Paul Leblanc, described the planned program in an AEI Education working paper released this past August. The application essentially forced the Department to take a clear position on competency-based learning; to their credit, the folks at ED approved the program. Amy Laitinen called the letter “a big neon sign saying ‘use this’”—the roadmap for future innovators of higher education delivery. SNHU and WGU are not alone; earlier this year, the University of Wisconsin announced its new competency-based effort, UW-Flex, and Northern Arizona is developing one as well.
Brenner is onto something: if we can find ways to hit the accelerator and bust out of the traditional academic calendar, students who are so motivated can finish much more quickly. Where law and policy tell entrepreneurs they can’t, we need to make it so they can.