If the U.S. is to reclaim its position as the most-educated nation in the world, federal policy needs to shift from paying for and valuing time to paying for and valuing learning. A new regulatory framework is needed—one that not just allows but encourages the creation of higher education programs based on learning instead of time. Many of the tools needed to make this shift are available to federal policymakers right now.


Higher education can be organized on a basis other than time. Indeed, learning-focused programs have long been successful in serving older, part-time, and other so-called “nontraditional students.” But competency-based higher education remains relatively uncharted territory. In an era when college degrees are simultaneously becoming more important and more expensive, students and taxpayers can no longer afford to pay for time and little or no evidence of learning. Federal policy should encourage traditional colleges and universities to think differently about how they deliver and award credit for learning. It should create a space for nontraditional providers to prove their ability to help students achieve real, objectively verified learning outcomes.

The Department of Education has three tools at its disposal that could allow for constructive experiments in awarding federal financial aid based on learning, rather than time.

Innovate within an Existing Frame: The Credit Hour

The department can help institutions and accreditors translate alternative measures of learning into the commonly used credit-hour framework.

Innovate through Experimentation: Experimental Sites

Here are three types of experiments the department could pursue:

  • Pay to assess learning that occurs outside the classroom toward a credential.
  • Pay after learning outcomes are demonstrated.
  • Pay for learning toward a degree that is acquired outside traditional faculty and institutional boundaries.

Innovate Free from the Credit Hour’s History: Direct Assessment

Direct assessment is a blank slate. It could provide the opportunity to experiment with a new quality-assurance process, one that privileges learning over time and tradition. If a select set of forward-thinking institutions can develop effective new ways to measure learning, they could influence a much larger set of institutions and accreditors.