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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2013

A Hack Education Project

What Counts "For Credit"

This post first appeared on Hack Education on December 19, 2013. Part 9 of my Top 10 Ed-Tech Trends of 2013 series.

This trend is one of the few this year that I haven’t explicitly covered in years past: what’s happening to “the credit” – the credit hour, accreditation, and so on. What counts for credit? Who counts these alternatives? What are they worth?

This trend is, of course, intertwined with the hype about MOOCs and competency-based education, along with the ongoing concerns about the cost of higher education, the explosion in student loan debt, and the demand that “everyone go to college.”

For those keeping score at home: in the Fall of 2013, postsecondary enrollments decreased 1.5% from 2012. Enrollments fell at four-year for-profit institutions (down 9.7%) and two-year public institutions (down 3.1%), although they did increase slightly among four-year public institutions (up 0.3%) and four-year private non-profit institutions (up 1.3%). Some of this is no doubt cyclical, as enrollments change as opportunities outside of school grow or shrink. But the diploma gap between high-income and low-income students continued to grow (54% of students from high-income families born circa 1980 completed a college degree compared to 9% of those from low-income families). And opportunities for the college-educated and the non-college educated alike seemed circumscribed in an economy that feels pretty grim.

Debt Nation

The average student loan debt (that is, for those students taking loans – roughly 7 in 10) hit $29,400 this year. (Here’s a breakdown state-by-state of who’s graduating with debt.)

The amount of student loan money owed the federal government surpassed $1 trillion this year. (The Department of Educationmakes a lot of money on that debt incidentally.)

Student loan default rates hit their highest levels since 1995.

There are over 260 colleges and universities in the US, according to The USA Today, that have a higher loan default rate than they do on-time graduation rate. (Nearly half of these are for-profits.)

But the crisis wasn’t enough, clearly, for Congress to get its act together on legislation pertaining to student loan interest rates, causing those rates to double in July before the Democrats and Republicans could come to a deal over new rates.

The majority of undergraduates now receive some form of federal financial aid. Colleges have expanded their aid offerings too although these aid packages increasingly help wealthier students, according to a report by ProPublica.

In light of all this, it’s hardly a surprise that lots of folks continue to ask “Is college worth it?” “Sure it is!” some will insist. “Hell no, it’s not!” others will try to convince you. But there’s really no one good answer for everyone. Sorry. Worth it for whom? How do you define “worth”? And so on.

The Cost of College

So why the hell is college so expensive? There were lots of explanations put forward this year, including a 10-part series in The Washington Post’s Wonkblog by Dylan Matthews – “The Tuition is Too Damn High.” (One reason Matthew gives: there’s no reason for big universities to rein in spending.) And while I’m pretty weary of infographics, I think this one in Deadspin about each state’s highest paid employee is pretty damn insightful about one of the things that’s eating away at college budgets – and their missions.

There was some indication that tuition increases were slowing down this year, but that’s little comfort for students and parents (and tuition just one part of the overall cost of college).

And despite the higher price tag for a college degree, Moody’s Investment Services issued a report this year suggesting that tuition revenue was not keeping up with inflation, supporting concerns that many institutions may be in financial trouble.

Of course, not all schools are in trouble. Not remotely. Stanford’s doing quite well, for example, becoming the first university to pull in a billion dollars in donations in a single year. And Yale is doing fine too; it’s sitting on an endowment of nearly $20 billion. (That didn’t stop the university from suing graduates who are failing to repay their loans.)

But some schools are hurting. Some closed their doors this year (for accreditation reasons, it should be noted, not just for financial ones). That being said, we still have a helluva long way to go ’til we get to the last 10 universities standing.

One of many notable institutions that are struggling: Cooper Union, one of the oldest universities in the country and one that has offered students full-tuition scholarships since it was established in 1859. Indeed that was part of the school’s founding mission: to make education “open and free to all.” But the Board of Trustees voted this year to begin charging tuition – the result of financial mismanagement. Students protested, occupying some of the university’s buildings; but as the year draws to a close, it does seem as though the board might revisit their decision on tuition.

Meanwhile, the last of the German universities that levy tuition fees said they will phase them out in 2014. Free higher education. What a novel idea.

Here in the US, we’re floating proposals for $10,000 degrees or for “Paying It Forward” (no tuition at public universities, then a repayment system based on student income). And we’re floating these from the very top of the government:

President Obama’s Higher Education Plan

A look at growing student debt and growing tuition rates is all background to the calls to “do something” about college costs and student debt (which I promise, have something to do with the title of this post: rethinking “college credit”).

President Obama has indicated that higher education will be a key part of his second term agenda, and the First Lady hit the speaking circuit this year to talk about college, pushing low income and minority students to attend.

In August, Obama unveiled his higher education plan, one that deals with largely with addressing the question of affordability. Among his proposals: tying financial aid to college performance, creating a Race to the Top for higher ed, building a rating system for schools (let’s hope it’s better than the US News & World Report rankings, eh), rewarding colleges who tow the party line with Pell Grant bonuses. Sounds pretty bold, says Kevin Carey. Sounds sorta coercive, says me.

In terms of “innovation,” Obama called for universities to “award credits based on learning not seat time” (competency-based or mastery-based learning, that is). He said schools should “use technology for student services.” Schools should “recognize prior learning and promote dual enrollment.” And he urged them to “use technology to redesign courses” (MOOOOOOOCs!)

Badges, Certificates, and Alt-Credits

I see “badges” on a lot of folks’ lists of the top trends in education this year. Indeed, Mozilla, which has been shepherding the development of the technology infrastructure to support badges, did release Version 1.0 of its software this year. But I’m not sure we’ve really seen enough uptake in badges to decree them a trend. Credits still matter – they matter to students; they matter to institutions; they matter to employers.

Even when it comes to certificates for MOOCs – something we saw in Coursera and edX’s nascent business models this year – it's not clear if these can be a replacement for a college diploma or if they’re merely a supplement.

MOOCs for Credit

I’ve detailed a lot of this in my year-end post on MOOCs, but I’ll recap here too:

Both Udacity and Coursera had courses approved) for ACE credit-equivalency (although interestingly, two universities that offer the ACE-approved Coursera MOOCs – Duke and UC Irvine – said they will not allow their students to use these MOOCs for credits). In August, The University of Maryland University College said it would be the first university to offer transfer credits to its students who complete MOOCs (or more precisely, who “demonstrate learning” from 3 Udacity or 3 Coursera courses, the ones that had been approved for ACE credit-equivalency). Georgia State University said it would offer credit for students taking MOOCs. The University of São Paulo said it would offer for credit two MOOCs offered via the Brazilian MOOC platform Verduca -- Basic Physics and Probability & Statistics. MOOC2Degree, a program run by Academic Partnerships, said it would forge deals with its client universities (including the University of Arkansas system, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Texas at Arlington College of Nursing, the University of West Florida, and Cleveland State, Florida International, Lamar, and Utah State Universities) to offer MOOCs for credit. MITx said that it would offer continuing education units for its “Mechanics ReView” series through a collaboration with the American Association of Physics Teachers.

One of the highest profile “MOOC for credit” deals was that struck between Udacity, Georgia Tech, and AT&T to offer a computer science master’s degree. The degree will cost students less than $7000 (significantly cheaper than the MS that the university currently offers – cheaper in part because of the financial support for the program from AT&T). Early signs are that there’s a high demand for the online program (not surprisingly, higher than the applications for the more expensive, on-campus version.)

But not all MOOCs for credit have been warmly received by students. Not a single student at Colorado State University-Global Campus signed up for MOOC-for-credit this year, for example. (Students there could pay $89 for a proctored exam, “compared with the $1,050 that Colorado State charges for a comparable three-credit course.”)

Again, this is just one part of the equation that alternatives to the college credit must overcome – do students find them appealing? Will universities accept them and count them towards graduation? Will employers recognize them?

Instead of Taking a College Class...

Alternatives to taking a class for credit aren’t entirely new. For many students, one of the ways to accumulate college credit before even entering college has been to take the Advanced Placement exam (and score well, of course). Enrollment in AP classes has been skyrocketing in recent years, although as Politico’s Stephanie Simon reported, “the number of kids who bomb the AP exams is growing even more rapidly.”

While there has been some pushback on the AP program (Dartmouth said this year that it would no longer accept AP credit), it’s still a widely accepted (and wildly profitable) offering. Indeed in a collision of my year-end trends: Davidson College, edX, and the College Board announced they were teaming up to design online lessons for the calculus, physics and macroeconomics AP courses.

Competency-Based Education

Similarly, competency-based education isn’t entirely new either. (Here’s a terrific primer by Michael Feldstein.) It’s the basis for the GED exam, for example, the test that high school dropouts can to take to demonstrate that they have, in fact, gained the skills of a high school graduate. (ACE partnered with Pearson a couple of years ago to create a new, harder, computer-based GED. This will roll out January 1, 2014.)

And perhaps higher education would do well to learn from the successes and failures of the GED as it moves to embrace competency-based education. What exactly does it demonstrate? What do we mean by “competency”? How are the assessments created? What companies dominate the assessment business? How does this shape curriculum? How well is competency-based education accepted? Who benefits? Who’s marginalized?

The Department of Education has been increasingly supportive of competency-based education. In March, the Department of Education issued guidelines for higher education institutions that offer competency-based programs to help them gauge whether they can move forward with offering federal student aid – a strong message from the administration that competency-based education programs “count.”

The department also approved Southern New Hampshire University for eligibility for its self-paced online program College of America – “the first degree program to completely decouple from the credit hour.”

In May, the for-profit Capella University received approval from its accreditor to offer a competency-based “FlexPath” BS in business and MBA degrees.

The University of Wisconsin System began offering a new “flex” program that allows non-traditional students to obtain course credits through MOOCs, online classes, and assessment. It’s been given a green light from its governing accrediting agency too.

Also accredited, Northern Arizona University’s competency-based online degree program called “Personalized Learning,” one that uses a subscription model for tuition. Degrees are available in Computer Information Technology, Liberal Arts, and Small Business Administration, at a cost of $2,500 per six-month term.

Western Governors University helped a number of community college adopt competency-based degrees and certificates, thanks in part to funding from the Gates Foundation and the Department of Labor.

Texas A&M University at Commerce and South Texas College said that they are working with Pearson to offer a competency-based degree in organizational leadership by next year.

Alternative Credentials and The Law

The pressure to accept competency-based degrees and MOOCs for credit doesn’t just come from the White House or the Department of Education or experimental schools or startups. Senators Christopher Murphy (D-CT) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) said they planned to introduce legislation to make it easier for “alternative models of higher education – such as competency-based education – to gain access to federal funding.”

Florida governor Rick Scott signed into law a bill that would encourage schools in his state to use MOOCs for credit. Earlier versions of the bill would have allowed just about anyone to offer classes available for credit. The state is one of many working on $10,000 college degrees.

California Assemblyman Dan Logue introduced a bill to create a pilot program for a $10,000 degree in his state. The bill didn’t go anywhere.

But Senate Bill 520 did (although not all the way – it wasn’t passed into law). [The controversial bill](identify and approve a set of up to 50 online courses that the three public systems would accept as credit for admitted students), proposed by State Senator Darrell Steinberg, would have identified a set of 50 online classes that the state’s universities would have to accept for credit. These classes could have been offered by a number of organizations, not simply universities (that’s code for “MOOC providers,” who were closely identified with the legislation). The bill went through a number of iterations, all of which were vociferously opposed by faculty groups. One open letter read,

First, limits on student access to the courses this bill targets are in large part the result of significant reductions in public state higher education funding, especially over the last six years. Second, the clear self-interest of for profit corporations in promoting the privatization of public higher education through this legislation is dismaying. In fact, UC’s graduation rates and time to degree performance show that access to courses for our students is not an acute issue as it may be in the other segments. Lastly, the faculty of the University of California, through the Academic Senate, approves courses for credit at the University and reviews courses offered for transfer credit to determine whether they cover the same material with equal rigor. There is no possibility that UC faculty will shirk its responsibility to our students by ceding authority over courses to any outside agency.

Accreditation Fights

One of the least-mentioned but most powerful systems that truly does govern the shape of higher education is the accreditation system, a peer review process of sorts where institutions assess and evaluate quality, usually without a lot of transparency in the process. (There are six regional accrediting bodies in the US, as well as numerous other national and professional ones.) And long story short: it’s all a bit of a mess.

As Phil Hill wrote in a blog post this summer,

"Why do I keep covering accreditation issues on e-Literate, a blog nominally about online learning and educational technology? The reason is that accrediting commissions have enormous influence on higher education institutions, particularly as the industry wrestles with questions of which changes are necessary, which changes are worth trying but might not work, and which changes should be avoided. If there really is a shift in the DOE’s views on accreditation or in the accrediting commissions’ interpretation of standards, then that could have fairly profound cascade effects on competency-based learning programs, private online colleges, MOOCs, and online service providers.

That is also why the lack of transparency from the accrediting commissions is so troubling. They are making decisions that have profound effects on many institutions, not just the specific schools under review."

There was a lot of accreditation news this year, well beyond the regular sighs of relief from admins that their schools were a-ok.

The University of Phoenix found itself struggling to maintain its accreditation this year. In February, its accreditor recommended the university be placed on probation. In May, the accreditor went with a lesser sanction, putting the for-profit “on notice.”

In July, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) announced that The City College of San Francisco “will lose its accreditation a year from now and its elected Board of Trustees will be stripped of decision-making powers.” It’s a huge blow to the country’s largest community college, one that serves over 85,000 students. The college has been struggling for some time with mismanagement. (In a turn of events, the Department of Education later notified the ACCJC that it was out of compliance in several issues relating to its CCSF sanctions.)

Honolulu Community College also received a warning from the AACJC, in part as Phil Hill noted, because the schools had not evaluated the effectiveness of their online courses.

The for-profit education startup Minerva, which plans to formally launch next year, made a number of key hires this year, including former Senator Bob Kerrey and Stanford admin Stephen Kosslyn. The startup partnered with the Keck Graduate Institute this year, an agreement which as The Chronicle of Higher Education notes, “gives Minerva a path to earning accreditation, which is one hurdle it has faced since introducing its plan for a new university last year.”

Another startup, Altius Education, a startup that runs a program called Ivy Bridge College, announced suddenly in August that Tiffin University had been ordered by its accreditor to stop offering associate degrees through the program. Ivy Bridge College was meant to serve working adults and had won grants from the Gates Foundation. Its parent company Altius Education had raised over $26.6 million in investment. In other words, a storybook disruptor. Inside Higher Ed’s Paul Fain has an in-depth look at “what happened” – enough to prompt the Justice Department to open an investigation, that is. Needless to say, Altius sold its assets to Datamark in October and shut its doors.

Not Making Any Predictions, But…

While I try to stay away from making predictions about the new year, I’ll go out on a limb to say that that activity in and around this trend is grow in the years to come. That’s not to say that revisions to the accreditation process or acceptance of alternative credits are inevitable. Rather I believe we’ll find ourselves in the middle of lots of furious debates about what must change, why, how, and who benefits when things do or don’t.

That last phrase seems worth repeating here in relation to all of this: who benefits. It’s the question we must ask again and again. There are already plenty of sharks in the higher ed waters – Trump University, which ran afoul of the law this year, for example, and Draper University of Heroes, which ran afoul of NY Magazine. Will changes to how we think about the college credit improve opportunities? Or is this just a new way to exploit students and to sell them an inferior education and worthless piece of parchment?