Backgrounder: Evolving Models of Postsecondary Learning

Author: India Heckstall

Today’s students—who are more likely to be workers, parents, returning adults, veterans, and more—may have postsecondary education experiences and pathways that don’t fit traditional molds. They no longer follow a single and consistent pathway to a degree. Today’s students need access to more flexible higher learning pathways and delivery models, as well as access to financial aid to attend the program of study that is the right fit for them.

As our current employment landscape continues to require lifelong learning and re-training, people must constantly continue to build skills sets in order to remain competitive in our global economic workforce.

Against this backdrop, the federal government’s role in regulating—and financing—higher education is changing. As the dialogue around innovation in higher education progresses, policymakers can learn from the past to strike a balance between forward-looking innovations and consumer protection.

There have been several different postsecondary education delivery models that the Department of Education (ED), the Department of Labor (DOL), and Congressional policymakers have developed and experimented with to serve today’s students. Below are some examples of models of higher learning.

Competency-Based Education (CBE)

Competency-based education (CBE) is a type of postsecondary education model organized around learning outcomes rather than how much time a student spends in a classroom. In the CBE model, students’ knowledge and skills are measured by completing a set of assignments and exercises such as direct assessments, adaptive learning, and captured lectures with mentorship and guidance from faculty and staff. Students move toward their degree or credential by demonstrating the mastery of specific skills or competencies.

Interested in learning more about competency-based education? Check out our 101 explainer and the Competency Based Education Network (CBEN) here.  

Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP)

In 2015, ED launched the EQUIP program under the Experimental Sites Initiative to experiment with granting Title IV aid to traditional higher education institutions that partner with non-traditional education providers such as intensive bootcamps, trainings, massive open online course (MOOCs), and short-term certificate programs. The EQUIP program is intended to provide ED the opportunity to evaluate different models of postsecondary education, examine the quality and educational and employment outcomes in order to better understand the effectiveness of certain non-traditional educational providers.

The EQUIP program, through authority granted under the Experimental Sites Initiative, waives the “50 percent rule” which, by statute, prohibits accredited institutions from outsourcing more than 50 percent of an educational program for students who receive federal financial aid. In April 2018, ED approved the first EQUIP program where Straighterline will partner with Brookhaven College in Texas to offer a joint associate’s degree to students where more than 50 percent of the coursework will be completed online.   

Interested in learning more about EQUIP?  Check out Education Counsel’s analysis here.

Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT)

The TAACCCT grant program was authorized by Congress in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). In 2010, the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act provided the TAACCCT program with $2 billion in funding over fiscal years 2011–14, or $500 million annually over four rounds of grants. The program was administered through the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education (ED).  

The purpose of the TAACCCT program was to assist community colleges and other two-year postsecondary programs with the capacity to offer education and training programs in order to prepare today’s students for high-wage, high-skills jobs that are in-demand. Community colleges and other two-year programs are instrumental in providing workers with the training they need to learn the skills needed in the current job market.

Interested in learning more about TAACCCT? Learn more from New America here and check out evaluations of the TAACCCT programs.

Distance Education Demonstration Program

The Distance Education Demonstration Program was implemented by ED in July 1999. The purpose of the program was to “test the quality and viability of expanded distance education programs currently restricted under the HEA,” increase students access to postsecondary education through distance education, and determine what defined “high-quality” distance education programs. The program supported the use of technology to deliver postsecondary education and hoped to increase students’ access to postsecondary education by allowing students to use federal student aid to pay for distance education programs.

Interested in learning more about the Distance Education Demonstration Program? Check out New America’s piece and ED’s evaluation.


Apprenticeship programs integrate on-the-job training with educational instruction, and can be an alternative to traditional colleges and universities. Apprenticeships can be valuable to both employers and employees. For employers, apprenticeships offer a pipeline of skilled workers that fits the employer’s needs and increases their worker retention rates. Workers are provided guaranteed on-the-job training and learn the skills needed for in-demand high-skill, high-wage jobs.

Interested in learning more about apprenticeships? Apprenticeship Forward is a collaborative of leading organizations working on this issue.

Work-Based Learning

Work-based learning, sometimes called employer-based training, creates employment opportunities for individuals needing additional job training, while giving them the opportunity to learn the skills associated with a specific job. These programs provide youth and adults the opportunity to gain the knowledge, skills, and experience needed for entry-level employment or to advance in their career.

Employers also benefit from work-based learning. Federal and state tax credits create financial incentives for employers to offer employer-based job training programs, and such programs can help employers who have difficulty filling certain positions obtain workers. Investing in apprenticeships and employer-based training is an investment in human capital because it helps bridge the gap between education and the workforce.

For example, service learning is a form of work-based learning. Service learning is a program that combines community service and educational goals that improve the overall well-being and growth of a student. Service learning integrates community service with educational instruction to create a learning experience and promote civic engagement.  

Interested in learning more about work-based learning? Check out the National Skills Coalition resources.

Short Term Credentials

Short-term credentials are designed to provide students with the necessary skills needed for a high-demand job in the labor market. Short-term credentials help reduce the job skills gap because an individual is learning a skill that is needed for the current workforce and can apply to that skill to a specific position that needs to be filled. Short-term credentials are intended to set students up for long-term success and can offer the opportunity for continuous learning to meet changing workforce needs.

Interested in learning more about short-term credentials? Check out this report from Jobs for the Future.


Certificates offer specialized skills for certain high-demand, good-paying jobs such as auto mechanics. For most certificate programs, students are required to complete hands-on training and apply technique to obtain a job in a speciality field.

Interested in learning more about certificates? Check out this report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.


Bootcamps offer innovative, hybrid, condensed educational courses that teach individuals high-skills needed in the workforce. Bootcamps are different than a traditional form of higher education because of its short-term skills training model. Popular bootcamps are coding bootcamps that teach technology skills or those skills related to STEM fields that are needed to diversify and fulfill current technology jobs. Students usually acquire a certificate indicating that they have mastered the skills.

Interested in learning more about bootcamps? Check out the Century Foundation’s piece.


A badge is a digital credential that helps students showcase their skills, interests, and accomplishments to employers that aren’t captured in their transcript. Digital badges usually display contextualized information such as the badge name, badge criteria (describing the achievement), badge URL, issue date, issuer, and recipient. Badges validate a person’s skill set by helping future employers understand the skills a prospective employee possesses, and how the skill applies to current workforce needs.

Interested in learning more about badges? Check out this report by the Alliance for Excellent Education.


Some professions require that individuals acquire licensure before being able to practice in a certain profession. In order to obtain licensure, the student must demonstrate a certain level of competency and many licensure professions require individuals to maintain ongoing requirements to remain licensed. Professions that require licensure are teachers, certified public accountants, engineers, psychologist, and school counselors. For example, teachers must earn a bachelor’s degree, complete a teacher prep program, fulfill student teaching requirements, pass the state’s required teachers exam such as the PRAXIS, and then the individual can apply for licensure. Licensure provides individuals the opportunity to practice the profession.

Interested in learning more about licensure? Check out the National Conference of State Legislatures occupational licensing database.