A growing number of colleges and universities want to structure their programs around students’ mastery of the material. This competency-based model means once students demonstrate proficiency in a subject, they advance. Students who master subject-area knowledge and skills more quickly are not delayed, while student who need more time can take it and not feel rushed.

The Center for American Progress also just released a white paper that found, “Competency-based education could be the key to providing quality, postsecondary education to millions of Americans at a lower cost.”

This is a radical—and welcome—departure from the 19th century one-size-fits-all model where rigid seat-time requirements hold kids back or push them along—whether or not they’re ready.

 But federal student-aid regulations are holding back the tide of progress by tying aid to credit hours instead of student learning—in spite of the U.S. Education Department’s apparent enthusiasm for this model. As Inside Higher Ed reported about Western Governors University (WGU):

Breaking the link between seat time and learning is one way that American colleges and universities can educate more people more efficiently, posit prominent reformers like Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Competency-based programs like Western Governors are the exception now, but “I want them to be the norm,” Duncan told The New York Times last fall. But here’s the catch: For all of the enthusiasm that Duncan and others express for spreading WGU’s approach further in higher education, many experts on nontraditional education say that the federal regulatory bureaucracy that Duncan now oversees serves to discourage—if  it doesn’t outright deter—other institutions from following in the unconventional university’s footsteps. While a 2005 law specifically designed for Western Governors created a way for it and other institutions to participate in federal financial aid programs by directly assessing how much students were learning, independent of how many course hours they took or how much time they spent in the classroom, few people in higher education seem to realize that WGU chose not to seek that authority (nor, seven years later, has any other college or university).

. …Instead, the university chose to stick with the more-traditional credit-hour-based approach that … divides the learning competencies it expects students to achieve into units that it equates to credit hours. Students pay a flat rate per term, and while they must complete a minimum number of what WGU calls “competency units” to make sufficient academic progress and qualify for federal student aid, there is no limit on the number of competency units they can earn in any time period. As WGU officials see it, that effectively kills the link between learning and seat time because a student getting credits based on learning she proves she has mastered can earn more credit in a term than would be possible in any classroom-based approach.

Perhaps instead of subsidizing costly higher-ed habits and playing politics with student loan interest rates, ED should do what it was originally founded to do more than 30 years ago: reduce regulation, encourage innovation, and promote student learning. Otherwise, it should get out of the way.