Op-ed: For competency-based programs to succeed, accreditation reform is needed

'This system is slow to adapt to new ideas'

For competency-based education (CBE) models to succeed, the national higher education funding and accreditation models must be revamped, Preston Cooper writes in an op-ed for U.S. News & World Report.

Cooper, a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute, says the CBE model allows students to move through material at their own pace as they balance other obligations, such as work. In Western Governors University's program, 92% of students are 25 years old or older.

"In an advanced economy, where jobs and skills may quickly become obsolete, such a model can offer a fresh start for older workers without great personal cost," Cooper writes. 

Competency-based education: Fact vs. Fiction

The system sets students up for financial success after college too, Cooper says. At Western Governors, just 7% of the competency program's graduates have defaulted on their student loans.

Other schools, such as the University of Wisconsin, are adding CBE programs as well. The idea has received praised from both the conservative Heritage Foundation and liberal Center for American Progress. The system has support. 

"The trouble is how to pay for it," Cooper writes.

Ninety percent of new student loans come from the federal government, he says. And for schools to be eligible to receive that loan money, they must be accredited by a federally approved organization

"This system is slow to adapt to new ideas and until recently required students to take a minimum number of credit-hours. For a system not based on time, that is a difficult hurdle to overcome," Cooper writes

While the Education Department allows accredited colleges and universities to apply for federal student aid for CBE programs, barriers to entry persist for new programs.

"With an almost-completely nationalize system of college finance, innovative new models will have a hard time breaking into business," Cooper says. "Fundamental reform of federal student aid is needed to allow competency-based education to succeed. This does not require ending federal involvement in college finance, but it does make a strong case for opening the market up to private investors" (Cooper, U.S. News & World Report, 2/17). 

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