Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Proceed with Caution

The US Department of Education ruled yesterday that colleges and universities participating in Title IV can award aid for assessment of prior learning.   While the Department said it would proceed with care, the potential for abuse here is significant.   The ruling was directed at Southern New Hampshire University, which is a place that has advertised heavily on TV.

Here is the notion, a "student" could apply for federal aid by signing up with a university and then taking a series of assessments to demonstrate competencies.   The Department sees this as getting away from "seat time" as the only arbiter of time to degree.   But consider the following example.   Let's say I am a 25 year old male who decides to go back.   For some reason, when this guy graduated from high school he never enrolled in college.   But he had a pretty good high school experience and has held a series of jobs over time and has developed a lot of competencies in what would normally be considered lower division college work.  So for example, he learned something about statistics and writing.   From my reading of the opinion letter, the student would get full eligibility for student aid but would only take classes for half of the normal time to degree.   In essence, even though the student is nominally enrolled for 50% of a degree, he would get aid for 100%.

Obviously, this has the potential to have colleges and universities do some innovative thinking about how to award credit and perhaps to even encourage more students to complete a degree.   But I look back at the "ability to benefit" provision of the 1972 Education Amendments, which created the first notion of wider eligibility for students in need and remember that while the provision offered many students a chance for an education, it also allowed significant abuse with some of the proprietary operators going into welfare lines signing people up with the promise of "free money."   Over a long career in the public policy of higher education, this small move could have huge negative consequences.

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