Give competency-based education a chance

What if students earned college credit for what they learn and can do, rather than the amount of time they spend sitting in a classroom seat?

 A movement is starting around the country to do just that. Programs that have adopted “competency-based” education allow students to work at their own pace and progress by mastering the knowledge and skills required for a particular course, regardless of how long it takes.

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 This growing trend is particularly important because it provides an avenue to increase innovation and access to higher education while potentially decreasing the cost of a college degree.

 Over the last decade, the cost of a college degree has skyrocketed. Average annual costs at public colleges and universities have seen more than a 100 percent increase — from $6,592 in 1964-65 to $13,297 in 2010-11. Similar trends can be seen at private institutions and two-year programs.

 Unfortunately, there are very few incentives for institutions to decrease costs. Competition between universities has merely led to an arms race, in which institutions spend hundreds of millions of dollars on nonacademic purchases instead of investing in academics. While some colleges and universities have adopted new technologies, they have simply used them to deliver traditional classroom instruction instead of advancing learning to the 21st century.

 Students realize that a college degree is necessary for higher-end jobs. Thus, they take on more loans and accumulate more debt, sometimes ultimately leaving school without marketable degrees or the skills to succeed in the workforce. This is particularly crucial for the 37 million American adults with some college credits but no degree, who may only need to meet certain requirements to obtain a credential. These students do not need a four-year traditional college experience, but only need a couple of classes to obtain a high-quality job.

 Competency-based education aims to reverse this trend. Today’s students come to college with different backgrounds and learn at different rates. The competency-based education program allows an institution to better tailor programs of study to the individual student. By measuring and assessing “competencies,” students matriculate with the knowledge of the skills they need to master. Likewise, businesses know what to expect upon hiring these students.

 While the Department of Education has allowed specified programs to explore this model through experimental sites, current regulations continue to stand in the way of these innovative programs. Financial aid is disbursed based on time rather than learning, and the academic calendar often stands in the way of students who want to progress at a faster or slower pace. Because the Higher Education Act has not been reauthorized since 2007, Congress has not had an opportunity to explore and address these barriers.

 For these reasons, we are introducing the Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act of 2013, along with Reps. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) and Robert Andrews (D-N.J.). This unique and bipartisan effort will allow innovative colleges and universities to explore ways to deliver education, measure quality and disburse financial aid based on learning, rather than time.

 As Congress considers the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, this project is more crucial than ever. In 1998, Congress recognized the importance of the growing trend toward distance education and the opportunity for students to learn online. Now, we once again have the opportunity to study competency-based education to learn about the statutory and regulatory changes necessary to allow more students access to these programs.

 Instead of relying on temporary fixes to help reduce college tuition and ease student debt, institutions should develop innovative ways to offer students a quality education at a more affordable price. Our legislation will not only provide additional methods of high-quality higher education, it will improve access for a growing population of Americans still in search of their dream.

Polis has represented Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District since 2009 and serves on the Education and the Workforce, and the Rules committees. Salmon is a freshman member representing Arizona’s 5th Congressional District and serves on the Education and the Workforce, and the Foreign Affairs committees.