The Argument for Competency-Based Higher Education

There has been recent buzz regarding the awarding of higher education degrees based on demonstrated competence of knowledge and skills rather than the traditional acquisition of a set number of course-based credits. In April 2013, the U.S. Department of Education approved the eligibility of Southern New Hampshire University to receive federal financial aid for students enrolled in a new, self-paced program (http://bit.ly/17IHbJ2). Then in May, the U.S. Department of Education notified colleges and universities that they could apply to provide federal student aid to students in competency-based programs and identified a process for that application (http://bit.ly/HCZvGW). Later this year (2013), Wisconsin’s extension system will start a competency-based program where students with experience and program-specific skills may be able to test out of courses (http://bit.ly/17cV4Js).

I am enthusiastic and optimistic regarding the possibility of competency-based education. There are benefits for all constituency groups involved. Here are a few of the benefits I envision. What benefits to you see?

  1. The focus of the degree is truly on skills and knowledge attainment not credits or seat time.

Currently, colleges and universities award a degree essentially based on seat time. A student satisfactorily completes 120 credits and receives a diploma. While there is an assumption that satisfactory completion of coursework suggests learning has occurred, the degree itself is not awarded based on demonstrated skill or knowledge. Aren’t the knowledge and skills what college and universities should be focusing on?

  1. Graduates are better prepared.

If the focus shifts from completed credits to demonstrated skill and knowledge, then it seems logical that college students will be better prepared than they currently are as they transition from these institution. Federal reports, international rankings, and books such as Academically Adrift decry the academic preparedness of today’s U.S. college students. Competency-based higher education can re-center degree attainment on what really matters to everyone – skill and knowledge.

  1. There is a clear delineation of acquired skills and knowledge for employers/grad schools.

As I talk with colleges working in career development, they discuss the inability of seniors to articulate what they have learned during their undergraduate careers. Yes, they can list off all 1.3 million items on their resume (that they actually started developing in kindergarten). However, they cannot explain what skills and knowledge they acquired from these experiences no how they can apply what they learned to different situations. Developing competency-based educational program would require clearly defined sets of skills and knowledge that would have to be demonstrated to graduate. This delineation would make it easier for students to describe these knowledge and skills. This explanation would also make it easier for employers and graduate schools decipher resume’s to determine what students know.

  1. Alternate college journeys are validated.

Competency-based higher education is student-centered. Rather than making students conform to an antiquated, mode of education most appropriate for the industrial age, this model focuses solely on competencies and acknowledges the real fact that students can acquire these competencies multiple ways. This model honors the multiple journeys students take to achieve their degree. Students can swirl between institutions to acquire the skills and knowledge required to graduate. They can also double-dip by attending two institutions at the same time. Students may acquire skills and knowledge when they stop out of college because they are developing skills on the job or in other settings. As the number of diverse paths to a college degree increase, a model for degree completion is needed to align with these myriad journeys.

  1. College will be cheaper for students, colleges, and the federal government.

Competency-based education would be cheaper for most higher education stakeholders. If the focus is competence, students wouldn’t need to take courses at the same institution and articulation agreements wouldn’t be needed. In addition to coursework, students could also acquire skills in a variety of ways including working a job, volunteering, or serving in the military, etc. All of these options could decrease the cost of degree attainment for students. With decreased costs for a college education comes a reduced need for financial. A reduction in need for financial aid would ease fiscal burdens for individual institutions as well as federal aid programs. It is important to note that a shift to a competency-based model would include an initial investment at the institutional and possibly federal and state level for development and implementation.

  1. Assessment will be easier.

It also seems that assessment would be easier in a competency-based system, or at least much more clearly focused. Right now, it seems challenging for many academic departments and institutions to identify learning goals and outcomes and find ways to document their achievement. In this new model, goals and learning outcomes would have to be clearly articulated (which would take time of course). Competency milestones on the path to degree would need to be developed to help a student know if she was on track. The assessment process wouldn’t be easy. However, the end result for student learning would be much clearer that it currently seems to be.

While there are benefits to competency-based higher education, the process to implement this model nationally would be a long, challenging road. It would require agreement that this model is the best for students and the U.S. higher education system. Once that understanding was reach, the conversation regarding which skills and knowledge would need to be demonstrated for each discipline would begin. This discussion couldn’t be resolved during a weekend retreat. It would take longer. But, that conversation has started and I am interested to see where it leads.

What benefits and challenges do you see to competency-based higher education?

About Gavin Henning

Gavin is a college student educator with a reputation as an organizer, collaborator, and catalyst for educational change. His professional mission is to generate applied scholarship, bridge theory to practice, create systems and processes, and edify higher education professionals to foster college student learning, development, and success. Gavin has advanced this mission during his 20+ years in higher education in positions including professor, assessment practitioner, and student affairs educator. In his current position as Master of Higher Education Administration and Doctorate of Education Program Director at New England College, Gavin helps prepare the next generation of professionals to improve educational organizations. As president of ACPA – College Student Educators International he leads the premiere higher education association centered on fostering college student learning and development. As founder of Student Affairs Assessment Leaders (SAAL) and member of the executive committee of the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS) Gavin helps further a national agenda of accountability and continuous improvement of higher education programs and services. Gavin has been recognized by for his contributions to student affairs and higher education by receiving ACPA’s Annuit Coeptis award and Diamond Honoree awards. Gavin holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Education Leadership and Policy Studies and a Master of Arts degree in Sociology both from the University of New Hampshire as well as a Master of Arts degree in College and University Administration and a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and Sociology from Michigan State University. In his free time Gavin enjoys reading, biking, kayaking, and losing to Facebook Friends in Scrabble.
This entry was posted in Assessment, Higher Education, Innovation, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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