In the delicate process of reforming how colleges measure learning, Amy Laitinen's job sometimes feels like marriage counseling.
One of her main issues these days: competency-based education. Proponents tout this model—which allows students to progress at their own pace by mastering measured "competencies" rather than spending a fixed amount of time in class—as a balm for the ills of academe. It will improve quality and expand access for working adults, they argue, while lowering costs for both colleges and students.
THE INNOVATOR: Amy Laitinen, New America Foundation
THE BIG IDEA: Higher education should measure learning, not seat time.
Yet such nontraditional approaches raise anxieties for all the key players who need to get on board to make them widely available. The federal government, which disbursed more than $187-billion in financial aid in 2012, worries about fraud. Colleges worry they can't innovate because their efforts won't jibe with the existing financial-aid system. And accreditors, recently chastised for failing to ensure quality, worry about any moves that might again provoke the feds' wrath.
Enter Ms. Laitinen.
Until 2011, the 39-year-old wonk served as a higher-education policy adviser in the Department of Education and the White House. Now, as deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation, she has drawn on her administration connections and knowledge of government to become an important player in the burgeoning efforts to promote competency-based education and rethink the credit hour.
Much of her work at the Washington think tank is behind the scenes. She talks with the Education Department, accrediting agencies, and colleges to help each understand the others' points of view. She has advised at least a dozen colleges considering competency-based programs, walking them through the financial-aid implications and connecting them with the right people at the Education Department. She has helped to knit all of these people into a community by planning gatherings and suggesting the creation of an e-mail list, where, among other things, folks coming back from a meeting with the Education Department will share information and questions.
Regulatory Washington is a tense world. Ms. Laitinen, a passionate salsa dancer who looks as un-Latin as you can imagine, is known for breaking the tension with humor. She mocks herself—"I get blonder as I get older," she joked recently—and once suggested a thorny issue might be tackled through interpretive dance.
Ms. Laitinen's efforts have serious implications for innovators hoping to use technology to create educational models that don't hinge on time spent in class—and to tap aid dollars for those programs.
"I view her as an enabler of technological innovation," says Michael J. Offerman, a competency-based-education consultant who was formerly president of Capella University.
At the heart of what Ms. Laitinen does is a crucial-yet-obscure issue: the credit hour. Last year she published a widely read policy report, "Cracking the Credit Hour," which argued that the time-based units are "the root of many problems plaguing America's higher-education system."
The credit hour generally signifies one hour of faculty-student contact each week throughout a semester. It grew, in part, out of Andrew Carnegie's early-1900s efforts to create a free pension system for professors. Over time it has evolved into the bedrock of higher education, the foundation that undergirds degrees, faculty workloads, and financial-aid eligibility.
Yet the credit hour "doesn't actually represent learning in any kind of consistently meaningful or discernible way," Ms. Laitinen argued in her report. And its basis in "seat time," she wrote, is an "awkward fit" with online models that allow students to move at their own pace. Ms. Laitinen's report charted a road map for the different ways policy makers could experiment with awarding financial aid "based on learning, rather than time," within the boundaries of existing law.
Paul J. LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, which is developing a competency-based program, says Ms. Laitinen's report "has become the thought-leading piece on moving away from the credit hour."
Ms. Laitinen's own higher education began at Miami Dade Community College, which she attended after finishing 113th out of 121 students in her high-school class. ("I was sort of a rebellious kid," she says.) After earning an associate degree, she enrolled at the New College of Florida, a public liberal-arts institution that she describes as a "life-changing institution." The former high-school underperformer became a hyper-engaged student-government leader.
After college, Ms. Laitinen served two years with Teach for America, which sent her to work at a poor school in a drug-infested Dominican neighborhood of New York City. She felt wholly inadequate.
"I would come home at night and just cry," she says, "and just feel like I couldn't do enough for my kids."
Ms. Laitinen concluded that she wanted to work on poverty, so she enrolled in a public-policy master's program at the University of California at Berkeley. At the time, San Francisco was weighing whether to become the first major city in the country to have its own minimum wage. Ms. Laitinen conducted a study of how that would affect the local economy, and she got the chance to help make the wage happen when Matt Gonzalez, then president of San Francisco's board of supervisors, hired her out of school to be his chief of staff.
After volunteering on the Obama campaign, she landed a job at the Education Department. She led development of the American Graduation Initiative, a proposed $12-billion community-college effort. It was a major disappointment for her: The plan collapsed during negotiations to overhaul student aid and health care.
Things are looking sunnier for competency-based education, which has the backing of influential foundations and the secretary of education.
In researching the topic, one of Ms. Laitinen's discoveries was an obscure provision of the Higher Education Act that allows for what she describes as "an entirely different way of awarding federal financial aid"—a system based not on seat time but on the "direct assessment" of student learning. Congress wrote it into law in 2006 to benefit Western Governors University, a politically plugged-in competency-based institution. But Western Governors chose to convert its competencies into credit hours, so the authority went unused.
Ms. Laitinen began to spread the word about this scarcely known and never-tried option. Her credit-hour report promoted it as a key tool at the Education Department's disposal.
Now the department has decided to give it a try. In April, it approved Southern New Hampshire University as the first institution to be eligible for financial aid under this provision. The university is rolling out a self-paced online program that has no traditional courses or professors. Instead, students advance by demonstrating mastery of 120 competencies, such as "can use logic, reasoning, and analysis to address a business problem."
The news prompted Ms. Laitinen to blog a headline that never would have gotten past the handlers who manage PR for her old department: "It's Official!" she cheered. "US Department of Education Approves First College to Ditch the Credit Hour."