In the pursuit of more affordable higher ed for more Americans the idea of “direct assessment” strikes many as promising, as Paul Fain reports in “Beyond the Credit Hour,” on InsideHigherEd. This is a move to use  competency tests, rather than numbers of credit hours taken by students, as the measure of degree-program efficacy.

The Dept. of Education has just now expressed support for this shift to “competency based” programming, allowing federal approval for programs that embrace the new system.  It is a system that strongly  favors on-line instruction… Some associate degree programs, Fain writes, have put aside not just credit hours but also courses and professors altogether in order to maximize  such instructional “flexibility.”

I won’t rehearse our debates regarding on-line instruction, except to say that at the very least this is a shift that is predicated on self-paced learning and by definition it will best serve those who are able to achieve mastery without a tremendous amount of guidance or who are uninterested in community and collaboration…Welcome, neo-liberal learners!

And “competency,” you say? I’ll try not to get started on the gap between “assessment” and “accountability” in American higher ed.  Instead, I’ll stress some of the rhetorical work being done here to hide deeply entrenched educational inequities.

First, we have a troubling use of the term “affordable.”  No professors or courses? Self-guided learning? Hmm….Prices for these credentials will drop, yes, but only because the value of these products to their makers has also been reduced.  We have long known that in education, when costs to consumers drop we rarely find value being added elsewhere by producers.  There are no bargains in education, only savings. So let’s not encourage “affordability” to  become the next “diversity”: A reassuring incantation that replaces systemic critique.

Then, there’s also that idea that educational “flexibility” is necessarily somehow empowering to students.  That premise proceeds in this case from  a highly selective logic about technology, a logic that once again finds democratic potential in the ostensibly dematerialized features of the Internet…that decentralized, customized, always-available-go-at-your-own-pace-technology-of-the-people.

But think about the population most desperately in need of more affordable higher education in the United States.  Even if inexpensive options for high-speed, reliable connectivity pervaded every community in America and lap-tops came free with every fill-up (equally absurd scenarios at this point),  we are still talking about millions of people trying to continue their education in the face of long work days, child- and elder-care responsibilities, worsening health care for themselves and family members, and in many cases, backgrounds in weaker public school systems…clearly an uphill battle for many.  The choice to discard credit hours in favor of some other metric of learning may loosen traditional notions of when, where, and how higher education takes place. But so what?  If this fabulous new strategy won’t even acknowledge, let alone correct those profound structural impediments to the meaningful expansion of educational participation, is it really changing anything at all?