Do Outcome-Based Models Help Make College Affordable?

By Staff

More and more we are seeing articles in the media asking: “Is college worth it?”

The question at one time might have seemed silly; most economists and higher education experts argue that higher education is still worth it. But the affordability crisis facing American colleges and universities may soon change that assessment. The recent article in The Hechinger Report —“Moody’s: college money woes are getting worse [2]”— presents additional evidence why this issue will remain in the headlines. The affordability crisis in higher education is clearly getting worse, not better.

The fact that we’ve seen this crisis coming for a long time increases the frustration that more progress has not been made. All of us in higher education need to take the task of re-thinking our business and academic models seriously. The time for hand-wringing and defending the status quo should have ended years ago. The bold innovation needed now must not only help make degree attainment more affordable, but do so in a way that helps adult students earn their degrees as efficiently as possible with the assurance that the skills they acquire are what today’s employers require.

Why the urgency? First, a robust, highly-educated workforce that has mastery of the skills needed in tomorrow’s labor market is essential for the U.S. to remain competitive in the global economy. President Obama has set a goal that by 2020 the U.S. will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. But we simply cannot get there with only the current, dominant models for degree programs and the target student populations for those programs. In fact, unless we rethink the fundamentals, the percentage of Americans with college degrees could actually decline.

Bottom line: With the volume of student loan debt at over $1 trillion and counting, degrees must become significantly more affordable, very soon, or too many Americans will lack the means or the motivation to pursue a degree at all.

Thankfully, there are bright spots on the horizon.

The institutions that can most fundamentally influence how higher education is offered, such as the U.S. Department of Education and regional accrediting bodies, are increasing their visible support for the types of innovations that can be game-changers when it comes to degree affordability. For example, the Department of Education has recently granted approval for the delivery of degree programs using the “direct assessment” model of learning. Southern New Hampshire University and Capella University are the first two schools to receive this approval, with SNHU offering programs at the associate’s degree level and Capella offering bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.

So what is direct assessment and how can it help solve the college affordability crisis? It’s all about re-thinking how learning is measured. Instead of awarding credit based on “seat time,” or the amount of time spent in a classroom, the direct assessment model enables students to move through their program at a pace determined by their capacity to learn and to demonstrate academic competencies with real-world applications. As an example, in Capella University’s undergraduate “Global Business Relationships” course, students must demonstrate mastery of competencies that include the need to “analyze cultural communications that affect international business,” “evaluate patterns of global organizational structure and hierarchies,” and “analyze the role of international business culture in the negotiation process.”

The direct assessment model has the potential to significantly reduce the cost of a degree while maintaining academic rigor, quality and integrity.

And for working adult learners, who at mid-career have years of experience in their chosen fields yet require a degree to advance in their careers, a direct assessment model makes all the sense in the world.

Competency-based learning and direct assessment are not new concepts, but the real innovation here is delivering high-quality learning outcomes, backed by quantifiable measurement, through self-paced degree programs that are fully credentialed and eligible for federal financial aid. Doing this right is not an easy task, but it is vitally important to college students, to their current and prospective employers, and for the future of our nation as a whole.