Long visits White House, meets with Department of Education, Congress

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Lipscomb University is among three universities from across the nation whose representatives visited the nation’s capital Thursday, April 10, to discuss innovative competency-based learning models and explore new ways of using federal student aid to increase access to these models.

long2Charla Long, dean of Lipscomb’s College of Professional Studies and architect of the university’s competency-based program, met with government officials at the White House Thursday morning to discuss competency-based education models, the outcomes of these programs for students and specific issues in current federal law and regulations.

Thursday afternoon, Long also spoke at a congressional briefing on competency-based education models, and encouraged Congress to change federal aid regulations to help fund federally authorized “experimental sites” that offer this innovative educational approach.

“Larger public institutions, primarily state systems, have typically been tapped to tout their higher education innovations and to push for policy changes,” said Long. “So it is significant that Lipscomb has become part of this conversation on a national level. The competency-based approach to higher education is allowing all institutions, regardless of whether public or private, for-profit or non-profit, 2,500 students or 25,000 students, to develop students who can demonstrate their learning and be workforce ready from the point of graduation.”

Long was joined by colleagues from Brandman University and the University of Wisconsin. Officials from the Lumina Foundation and the New America Foundation also appeared at the Congressional briefing on Thursday. 

Lipscomb University was one of a small group of universities across the country to formally respond to a recent call for ideas from the U.S. Department of Education about how federally authorized “experimental sites” could help them responsibly explore new ways of using federal student aid to pay for innovative competency-based learning models.

The institutions submitted a joint response outlining experiments that would explore new or alternative federal definitions of student “attendance,” separate federal financial aid eligibility from time-based measures and test hybrid programs that mix competency-based learning and traditional instruction.

This group of colleges and universities responded to the U.S. Department of Education’s call earlier this year for options for waiving federal student aid policies governing grants and loans that inhibit alternative learning models with potential to better meet the needs of some students. The department will use responses to its request to determine how to frame a formal request for proposals that could come later this year.

“Competency-based education is shifting the conversation in higher education from how much time students spend in a classroom to what students are learning,” said Long. “Competency-based education also sets clear expectations for universities about what students need to know in order to earn degrees or credentials in liberal arts and STEM fields.”

Competency-based programs are helping fill a gap for employers who are seeking employees who have the knowledge, skills and abilities to perform their tasks.

“Labor economists project the country will lack five million educated workers to meet workforce needs by 2020,” said Long. “A competency-based program is a way to link the academy to the business sector as it focuses on what student-employees know and can demonstrate, regardless of how much time that individual has spent in a traditional college classroom.”

A competency-based education model is an emerging concept in higher education. It focuses on what students need to know, understand and be able to do to earn degrees and on assessing the achievement of these discipline-specific and general competencies. These models hold learning requirements constant while academic calendars and structures can vary from traditional course-based, credit-hour-measured, instructor-led education, making them tougher to finance through federal student aid.

Long said a key factor to making competency-based programs available to more students will be finding ways in which federal aid programs can better support such programs. In January, President Barack Obama negotiated with Congress to pass a new spending bill that includes a $260 million “First in the World” fund for higher education innovation and reform that will focus on competency-based education and learning initiatives.

Public support for learning-based models is strong. A 2012 Gallup/Lumina Foundation Poll found that most Americans agree that earning a college degree is important for financial security, but many lack education beyond high school due to the barriers in traditional, time-bound higher education. Of those surveyed, 87 percent said they believe students should be able to receive college credit for knowledge and skills acquired outside of the classroom, and 75 percent of those polled said that if they could be evaluated and receive credit for what they know, they would be more likely to enroll in higher education.

Lipscomb University’s College of Professional Studies offers programs designed to meet the unique life demands of the adult learner and range from degree completion programs to several graduate-level programs and certificates that prepare students for jobs in the current or future marketplace. It houses the university’s undergraduate Adult Learning Program, the School of TransformAging and the Institute for Law, Justice and Society.

For more information about Lipscomb’s College of Professional Studies, visit lipscomb.edu/professionalstudies or call 615.966.1104.