College Guide


March 19, 2013 11:41 AM The Department of Education: Credit for Life Experience

By Daniel Luzer

The U.S. Department of Education is now encouraging American colleges to seek federal approval for “competency-based” programs. Competency-based means institutions could grant degrees based on student demonstration of actual knowledge and skills. This would allow students to obtain college degrees based directly on what they know and can do, not how many hours they spend in class.

According to a letter released by the department today:

Instead of using credit hours or clock hours as a measure of student learning, instructional programs may use direct assessment of student learning, or recognize the direct assessment by others of student learning. Examples of direct measures include projects, papers, examinations, presentations, performances, and portfolios.
An institution that wishes to award Federal Student Aid (FSA) funds in a program using direct assessment must apply for approval from the Department. The application must specify the equivalent number of credit or clock hours for a direct assessment program (including how equivalencies will be established if students are permitted to take less than the entire program based on an assessment conducted at the outset). The Secretary will use these equivalencies to determine whether the program meets the minimum requirements for an academic year and as the basis for payment period and award calculations.

Direct assessment, traditionally associated with somewhat scammy programs that grant degrees for “life experience” have, as a model, been gaining traction among education reformers as a legitimate way to improve college in recent years.

One of the major reasons for this is that direct assessment could really reduce the cost of college. If you can obtain credit for what you already know, you don’t necessarily have to spend 60 hours (roughly the time spent in the classroom for one academic course), and thousands of dollars, showing a college you know it.

The credit hour, which awards academic credit based on hours spent in the classroom, is a legacy of an old-fashioned way to award pensions to professors. It only exists as a proxy for student learning. Why not just measure student learning directly, and award degrees for that learning?

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Bo on March 19, 2013 8:17 PM:

    "Why not just measure student learning directly, and award degrees for that learning?"

    Pie in the sky or what. The law would have to restrict administrators. They are brutal. I know a star programmer who tried for a PLA (Prior Learning Assessment) at a Canadian online university and the process gave him nothing but grief and huge money. Administrators kept adding requirements as he went along. I've taught for 40 years and I recognized the games.

    This is like a Volcker Rule for colleges. If the administrators don't kill it with games afterward, that's because they would kill it with a million amendments and quibbles ahead of time. Evil exists.

  • Ron Mexico on March 20, 2013 8:27 AM:

    I wrote my thesis on life experience.

    This post conflates two separate issues: whether the credit unit is an accurate measurement of student learning (and it is not) and should be replaced by something else (not proposed here); and whether students who have "life experience" relevant to a course of study/professional certification/etc. should have some means to apply this to progress to a degree or certification. It is patently obvious that many many people who attend college or seek certification do not have applicable experience. Thus "life experience" by itself cannot be a replacement for credit units.

    And I understand that the wikipedia page on this makes a sloppy claim that the CU system was connected to pensions. But your line is wrong. CUs were an attempt to standardize college education at a time when public education was under considerable pressure to professionalize. That is, the motivation behind adoption of CUs wasn't to pad someone's wallet, but to make college education more transparent to administrators. I leave it to you to decide whether this is an acceptable motive conducive to good educational practices...

  • Daniel on March 20, 2013 10:38 AM:

    A move to professionalize education and a move to award pensions aren't actually in conflict, but really, it was primarily diven by professor compensation. See: