One of the factors discouraging innovation in higher education is what is known as the credit hour. As its name implies, the credit hour is a measure of instructional time and is used to track a student’s progress toward a degree.

Think of the credit hour as a type of currency. Each semester-long course is typically worth between a half-credit and five credits. A bachelor’s degree usually equals 120 credit hours. Institutions are locked into organizing their offerings and requirements around the credit hour because that’s the coin of the realm for federal student loan and grant programs. But it is, at best, only a rough approximation. Students learn at different rates. Some can breeze through a class effortlessly and, if it were possible, complete a class in a matter of weeks rather than months. Others can learn the required material given enough time.

Competency Based Education (CBE) is an alternative to the credit hour more closely aligned with learning. With competency based education, students move closer to a degree or certificate by mastering knowledge and skills. A growing number of institutions, especially those that, like National University, specialize in serving adult students, are experimenting with Competency Based Education-type approaches, because it has the potential of allowing them to better serve the diverse needs of their students.

Recent developments at the government policy level seem to indicate an openness to expand definitions of learning beyond the credit hour which could provide much-anticipated regulatory clarity and guidance. The U.S. Education Department noted that it is interested in reviewing rules on the credit hour, a move that could give institutions more room to explore the potential of Competency Based Education. The topic also came up during part of the discussions around the now-on-hold reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which governs how postsecondary institutions operate.

Currently, the federal government does not define Competency Based Education for purposes of federal student aid but it also does not explicitly forbid colleges from using this approach. Instead, colleges that want to use it have to go through a challenging process of equating what students learn in a Competency Based Education course with hours of instruction. That defeats the purpose of Competency Based Education.

Here’s an example from work on Competency Based Education that we are doing in our Precision Education initiative, which is assessing data generated by thousands of students taking online courses to come up with recommended learning pathways that will allow them to move ahead as quickly as possible. We are finding that students required to take a developmental math class to help them get ready for college-level work vary widely. Some students who have been out of school for a number of years lack confidence in their math ability, to the point that it gets in the way of them being able to show what they know. We’re seeing that, after only a few lessons, those students find out they know more than they realized and they can finish the course in days. Others need intensive assistance to learn basic arithmetic. Why should both types of students be required to sit through the same class?

A shift in how the federal government treats Competency Based Education would encourage many more institutions to start moving in this direction. If we in the higher education community are successful in proving this approach can deliver high quality instruction using Competency Based Education, we’ll be able to make education more effective, more efficient, and more affordable—all of which will benefit students, taxpayers, and communities.

Blog post by Dr. David Andrews, President of National University. Precision Education at National University is a research-based initiative that is exploring new ways to leverage technology, open education resources, and predictive data analytics to adapt to student needs and guide them to successful completion of their academic and career goals.

Learn more about the initiative and the Precision Institute at National University: