The profile of today’s college student has changed a great deal in recent decades. The traditional college student was typically male, aged 18 to 24, attended college full-time and lived on a campus. Today, women make up a majority of college students in America. Students over the age of 25 increased 42 percent between 2000 and 2010, and that number continues to grow. As few as 15 percent of today’s college students are first-time, full-time students.
The average Capella University student, a forty year-old woman in the middle of her career, is in many ways the face of the contemporary student. This changing profile of America’s college students requires us to find more flexible, innovative ways to deliver education that meets their needs. Rising tuition costs and mounting student debt reinforce the need for increased access to higher education that does not unnecessarily burden students with years of economic hardship after graduation.

This month, Capella’s CEO, Kevin Gilligan, testified at a hearing before the House Education and the Workforce Committee in Washington, D.C. to discuss our innovative model of educational delivery to meet the needs of these students: competency-based direct assessment.
Competency-based direct assessment is turning the traditional world of higher education upside down by measuring learning outcomes, rather than seat time in the classroom like the credit hour. This competency-based model builds backwards from the necessary outcomes or competencies in a particular professional field. It provides an ideal format for contemporary students who bring with them knowledge in their field and real world experience. Moreover, it allows them to move toward the completion of a degree on their own schedule and at their own pace.
Capella’s expertise in competency-based education enabled us last year to become the first institution in America approved by the Department of Education to offer financial aid eligible bachelor’s and masters degrees based on the direct assessment of learning, rather than the time-based credit hour.
Capella’s direct assessment program, known as FlexPath, utilizes a subscription-pricing model, which means the more courses a student takes in a term, the less money that student ends up spending on their degree program. There are no pre-set deadlines for assessments, but instead students build their own learning plan and set their own pace. FlexPath is also agnostic to the source of learning, enabling students to draw upon any open source material, including textbooks, e-books, simulations, videos, articles and their work experience.
Students’ mastery of a particular competency is demonstrated through authentic assessment, which requires the successful completion of projects mapped closely to those encountered in the workplace. In a model where learning is tracked closely to the skills needed to succeed in a particular field, educators, employers and students can be confident that direct assessment is meeting the needs of today’s workforce for employment and advancement.
Competency-based education, broadly, and direct assessment programs, specifically, hold enormous potential to transform degrees by lowering cost, increasing value, better aligning to workforce needs and increasing access. However, there are specific legislative and regulatory barriers we need to overcome to maximize the model’s potential, while responsibly maintaining safeguards for students. 
Direct assessment breaks free of the credit hour, but federal financial aid is still entirely based on the credit hour. It is critical to develop responsible policy around ways to build a financial aid system that supports direct assessment and the outcomes it produces.
Currently, students are unable to take one course in a direct assessment program and another course in a traditional program. This reduces the impact of direct assessment. Few learners will be a perfect fit for either model, and learners would benefit from the ability to build a degree plan that allows them to personalize a path that works best for them.
American competitiveness is directly linked to our ability to improve higher education. The path to addressing this national imperative is through innovation. Both Congress and the Department of Education have begun to recognize this need: Congress through the introduction of HR 3136, The Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act, and the Department through their Experimental Site Initiative on competency-based education.
With continued collaboration between policymakers and institutions, innovative models like competency-based direct assessment can reach their full potential to meet the needs of America’s contemporary students.
Kinney is the president of Capella University, an accredited online university.