Dept. of Education encourages colleges to experiment with flexible credit systems

As a part of President Barack Obama’s push to make college more affordable, the U.S. Department of Education announced Tuesday that it will launch a new initiative to test innovative practices aimed at providing nontraditional, low-income and struggling students with better, faster and more flexible paths to academic and career success.

Nontraditional students, including those enrolled part-time, taking more than a year off from school after graduating from high school or working full-time, make up 85 percent of the country’s undergraduates, according to the American Council on Education.

By starting the Experimental Sites Initiative, federal education officials hope to open more paths for the nontraditional students to successfully complete degrees and help others pursue higher education for the first time. This will provide participating colleges with more flexibility in awarding federal financial aid to those participating in competency-based education programs.

Competency-based learning, also known as personalized learning, allows students to demonstrate mastery of academic content through a wider range of assessments at their own pace as opposed to solely measuring progress by the number of credit hours they accrue.

“At a time when a college degree matters more than ever, we have to provide a flexible, innovative experience that can meet the needs of every American,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in the announcement. “This initiative will enable institutions to try some of their best ideas and most promising practices to provide more students with the opportunity to pursue a higher education and become equipped for success in today’s workforce.”

“The House is expected to pass the bill, but it’s less likely the U.S. Senate will follow suit,” reports Inside Higher Ed, “in part because of top Senate Democrats’ desire to deal with the issue as part of the broad set of proposed legislation relating to the Higher Education Act,”which will soon be up for re-authorization since 2008.

Lawmakers are considering bills that could promote the same kind of innovation at colleges and universities, but it’s unclear whether those efforts will go anywhere, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Stay tuned for more on competency-based learning practices during our special week of higher education reports coming up in August.