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Three Ways to Cut the Cost of Higher Education for Adults

Three Ways to Cut the Cost of Higher Education for Adults
Technology’s growth and changing demands on higher education are combining to support the mainstreaming of some of higher education’s previously fringe solutions to the affordability crisis.
Three promising innovations hold the greatest potential for cutting costs (and student loan debt) for the millions of adults who seek to remain competitive in our challenging and dynamic labor market.

All three of these innovations were likely viewed as “fringe elements” only five years ago. But, with the call for greater accountability, transparency and innovation in higher education coming from the folks who hold the purse strings, all three of these innovations are gaining traction. In fact, all of these innovations are possible because of technology and because they leverage experiential, self-directed learning.

1. CBE and PLA

Competency-based education (CBE) is poised to make prior learning assessment (PLA) ubiquitous. It all begins with faculty defining the specific learning outcomes and competencies required to earn a credential or degree, which is not new or revolutionary in and of itself. However, once these competencies are defined, they can be assessed. And once assessed, the student is either competent or needs to do more work to attain competency. Several important advantages can be derived from this simple approach.

Valid assessment of competencies assures students the opportunity to have their prior learning count. Any learning acquired prior to beginning college studies can be validated via assessments (for-credit tests, portfolios or direct assessments designed by the faculty). This approach is not only academically sound and learner-centric, but also reduces costs (time and money). Taken a step further, it also enables learning to be separate from “seat time” and the credit hour. Direct-assessment CBE programs allow students to work at their own pace, proceeding through the curriculum as they demonstrate learning.

Technology enables tracking competencies and assessments across courses, sequences, majors, general education and the degree itself; individual by individual. Competencies are reinforced throughout the student’s studies with higher-order thinking and problem solving. Moreover, technology enables institutions to demonstrate to stakeholders (including accrediting agencies) the academic growth of their graduates. It broadens and enriches academic discussions by enabling more constituencies to have a voice, even if by Skype or meeting software so that employers, professional associations, faculty from different disciplines, assessment experts and even students can participate in the development of competencies.

2. Micro-Credentials and Badges

Real-time micro-credentials and badges enable adult learners to add evidence of learning and skill attainment to their resumes in ways that will enhance their employment opportunities. As employer needs change, adults will continuously update their skills by displaying badges and new “smaller learning chunks” that uniquely position them. The “smaller learning chunks” can stand alone or stack into certificates and degrees. So, as adults navigate changes at work or home, they can re-skill and continue their educations.

At, adults can earn badges by taking online low-stakes assessments with scores linked to levels of proficiencies, for free. As they continue to learn, they can be re-assessed to improve their scores and proficiency levels.

In the future, it’s expected that employers will be able to do “badge searches” in their recruitment for new talent. Again, technology is enabling the badges movement to take hold.

3. Open Online High-Quality Learning Content

Perhaps the most exciting “innovation” of all is the proliferation of content now available on the web, including much easier access to academic papers and journals. Self-directed adult learners who truly wish to reduce the cost of a postsecondary degree can take advantage of the thousands of courses now available at their fingertips, including the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by the most prestigious universities. Saylor is also providing students with many high-quality college courses, all for free. Learning derived from, MOOCs, TED videos and the many other online learning sources can be validated with PLA and CBE. Students might be able to reduce the cost of a postsecondary degree or credential by thousands of dollars.

Increasingly, degree pathways will be published by states (community colleges, state colleges and universities) as all of higher education works toward greater transparency. Students may also opt to go the CBE route — finding colleges that have CBE programs, taking the assessments and accessing the coaching and learning materials/assignments needed to develop competencies and achieve outcomes for completing degrees. Again, all of this is made possible because technology is making it easier and cheaper to implement.

The growing open educational resources (OER) movement itself is contributing major savings to all of the colleges seeking learning resources for students at low or no cost. The quality of the OER is remarkable and, as it has developed over the years, the ease of using OER contributes greatly to improved learning content and real cost savings. It is reducing textbook costs and improving collaboration across various education channels.


All of these innovations will make aggregating credit and leveraging prior learning a mainstream effort throughout the United States. Transfer credit evaluations will be de-mystified when information at the competency level is easily found and evaluated.

Perhaps most importantly, these innovations keep faculty at the heart of the learning process and assure a personalized, high-quality learning process for every student. New technologies, particularly adaptive learning, will contribute to greater efficiencies and personalization for adults who are continuously learning in both formal and informal situations.

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Further Reading

For more information on CBE and PLA, please visit the following resources:

Rebecca Klein-Collins and Elizabeth Baylor, “Meeting Students Where They Are,” Center for American Progress, November 7, 2013. Accessed at

“2013 CAEL Forum and News: Competency-Based Education,” Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, 2013. Accessed at

Rebecca Klein-Collins, “Sharpening Out Focus on Learning: The Rise of Competency-Based Approaches to Degree Completion,” Occasional Paper no. 20, University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. Accessed at

For more information on micro-credentialing and badges, please visit the following resources:

Mozilla, “Open Badges.” Accessed at

Smarterer, “Flock TeamSourcing.” Accessed at

For more information on free online educational resources, please visit the following resources:

“Creative Commons.” Accessed at

The Saylor Foundation, “Saylor Academy.” Accessed at

“Coursera.” Accessed at

OER Commons, “Rice University Connexions.” Accessed at

Author Perspective: