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Capella U Gets Sign-Off on Federal Funds for Competency Credits

Capella University has received sign-off from the United States Department of Education to allow students in two of its degree programs to receive federal financial aid in order to pursue "competency-based" credits in lieu of Carnegie units. Under the new format a student could earn a bachelor's degree in as little as two years or a master's degree in a year. The university, which delivers online education, said in statement that its FlexPath program was the first to receive approval under "Dear Colleague" guidance set out earlier this year by the federal government.

The degrees approved for the new form of credit are Capella's bachelor's degree in business administration and its master's degree in general business administration.

Each course in the program has a set of assessments designed around specific skills. For example, a business course assessment might require the student to draft a project proposal, including building a business case, forecasting a budget, and forming a team. Faculty members review the work and provide "substantive feedback" within 48 hours, the institution said.

Whereas the standard route to earning a bachelor's degree at Capella involves weekly assignments and course activities and faculty lead students in discussions, the FlexPath option has everything due by the end of the quarter and the student works independently. And whereas the traditional Capella program restricts courseload to three courses per quarter, there's no limit under the FlexPath option. Typically, Capella charges tuition per credit or course. The FlexPath approach charges a flat rate of $8,000 per quarter.

In a scenario on the Web site, a student who has 45 general education transfer credits might undertake four courses per quarter and complete the bachelor's degree in 1.5 years for a total tuition of $12,000. The university said its average tuition on the standard path is nearly $46,000.

"Programs like FlexPath, that measure learning instead of time, represent an enormous opportunity for higher education," said President Scott Kinney. "Students will be able to move through a degree program at a pace determined by their ability to learn and demonstrate competencies in real-world applications, rather than a pre-determined and uniform time designation. This has the potential to significantly reduce the cost of a college degree while maintaining quality and integrity of the degree."

To test out the FlexPath approach, the university ran a pilot with "select learners" during the last two quarters of its two degree programs. The students could take a limited number of courses in the self-paced format. The school concluded, "In the hands of the right people, this model can offer critical savings and unique flexibility contributing to higher completion rates."

The university developed an online assessment that candidates can take to determine whether they'd succeed with self-paced learning. Many of the questions attempt to uncover how much student interaction the candidate needs and how self-directed he or she is.

In its March guidance the Department of Ed laid out requirements for receiving permission to use the competency-based approach for students receiving federal financial aid. Institutions must apply for approval from the department, supplying details about how equivalencies will be established, and they must show that their accrediting agencies have reviewed and approved the programs as well. Examples of direct assessment measures cited by the department include projects, papers, exams, presentations, performances, and portfolios.

However, the Dear Colleague letter also laid out exceptions to direct assessment:

  • Courses required for teaching credentials;
  • Programs at foreign schools; and
  • Preparatory coursework required for entry into an eligible program.

"Competency-based approaches to education have the potential for assuring the quality and extent of learning, shortening the time to degree/certificate completion, developing stackable credentials that ease student transitions between school and work, and reducing the overall cost of education for both career-technical and degree programs," the Department wrote in its guidance, adding that it planned "to encourage the use of this innovative approach when appropriate" and "to gather information to inform future policy regarding competency-based education."

Capella said it would start enrolling new students in the FlexPath programs in October 2013.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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