The future of direct assessment

February 26, 2014

Today’s guest post is from Capella’s Director of Public & Federal Aid Policy, Jillian Klein. I would like to welcome Jillian back from maternity leave!


Jillian Klein, Director of Public & Federal Aid Policy

An article in last week’s Inside Higher Ed called “Taking the Direct Path” talks all about the recent history of direct assessment programs in higher education, including the opportunities and the challenges in moving this innovative style of learning forward. Capella University has been on the forefront of this change, with the development of the FlexPath program in 2013, which allows learners the flexibility to move through their program at their own pace, spending more time on the areas that are new to them and moving more quickly through those with which they are familiar. This decoupling of learning from credit hours and seat time just makes sense, but the road to move education in that direction continues to be a bumpy one.

The current federal financial aid rules require that direct assessment correlates back to the credit hour, but the extent to which this needs to happen is unclear. And even when schools can pass that hurdle, the reality is that the federal financial aid system is built around the concept of the credit hour and seat time, making it difficult to completely innovate in this area. This winter, the Department of Education requested that the higher education community submit proposals for experimental site initiatives geared at providing schools with the authority to experiment with options of how to administer financial aid in a true direct assessment model. This sort of safe place for innovation is exactly what is needed in order to build the basis for regulatory and policy changes that will fully allow direct assessment programs to operate separate from the credit hour model.

While the Department of Education is moving the ball forward on direct assessment, however, there are restrictions to those issues which the Secretary can focus on, such as modifications to Title IV awarding rules. Understanding this, a bipartisan group in Congress introduced HR 3136, the Advancing Competency-Based Education Act. This bill would create a demonstration program, which facilitates the same type of safe space as the Department’s experimental sites initiative, but is more comprehensive and factors in the necessary authority to make crucial Title IV modifications.

Through the development of the FlexPath program, Capella discovered first-hand the federal financial aid rules that inhibit true innovation in the direct assessment model, and the credit hour is just a piece of the puzzle. For example, in a more flexible model, where learners are able to move at their own pace, rules around what happens to a student’s financial aid eligibility when they drop courses need to be revisited. Currently the percentage of aid a student retains is based on a time component, but what happens when that disappears? The same question exists for a concept like satisfactory academic progress. Likewise, how can we rethink concepts like limits to annual aid eligibility in light of a model that is geared towards decreasing the amount of time it takes a learner to complete their degree? There are other challenges in the current system, too, like reconciling aid-eligible direct assessment programs with the current prohibition on granting federal financial aid for prior learning.

These issues provide a clear indication that there is a real need for the development of federal financial aid rules that make sense with the move towards direct assessment, and Capella is excited to be part of that conversation. Through the FlexPath program we are learning more about the opportunities that exist for learners in this new method of educational delivery, and we look forward to continued dialog around the topic.

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