The New Breed of Competency-Based Education Degree Programs: A Trend or Fad? (Part 1)

The EvoLLLution | The New Breed of Competency-Based Education Degree Programs: A Trend or Fad? (Part 1)
As competency-based approaches to degree completion become more common, it’s important to consider whether this innovative design will become the norm.

“Let me talk about some alternatives that are already out there. Southern New Hampshire University gives course credit based on how well students master the material, not just on how many hours they spend in the classroom. So the idea would be if you’re learning the material faster, you can finish faster, which means you pay less and you save money. The University of Wisconsin is getting ready to do the same thing.” (President Barack Obama, August 22, 2013 in Buffalo, NY)

Education, both at the K-12 and post-secondary level, is certainly susceptible to trends. There is a long litany of modern innovations that were prophesized to revolutionize the way we teach (“deliver instruction” to use the current jargon) or the way our students learn in college. Some of them include service learning, study abroad, dual credit, prior learning assessment of experiential learning, open admissions, clicker devices, distance learning, learning communities, freshmen seminars, the flipped classroom, low-residency and accelerated formats (even three-year bachelor degree programs), outcomes assessment, anti-plagiarism software, fully online and blended/hybrid courses, and of course, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

The verdict is still out on whether MOOCs will merely be an educational fad, especially after the poor performance of San Jose State University’s failed experiment with developmental math courses offered via a partnership with the for-profit MOOC provider Udacity in 2013. However, it was recently announced that the colossal 80,000-student Arizona State University is offering a year’s worth of academic credit to anyone via MOOCs in partnership with edX through its Global Freshman Academy. For a substantial tuition discount (and no admission requirements), each of those courses would be listed on an official university transcript without specifying whether it was a MOOC or a live class. That is certainly a “game changer” for MOOCs going mainstream and not just leading to a collection of badges. Yet one other less expensive and more convenient alternative to the traditional undergraduate college experience warrants equal attention to the MOOC phenomenon. In 2013, the Department of Education (DOE) gave its approval for select colleges to award federal student financial aid, including Pell Grants, based on the “direct assessment of student learning” (or measured competencies) instead of just earned credit hours over the semester. This signals a tipping point for the competency-based education (CBE) movement.

The private Western Governors University (WGU) and the private Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), through its College for America, have been the vanguard of competency-based education. However, College for America’s two associate’s and four bachelor’s programs were the first CBE programs approved through the new DOE’s direct assessment method. This latest innovation is fully backed by the White House, and was recognized by President Obama in a major policy speech back in 2013 (see opening quote) on college affordability. These newly accepted and regionally accredited online degrees are removed from the traditional credit-hour standard. Instead, students pay a flat tuition rate for a semester or year and work individually on projects at their own pace. The inveterate Carnegie unit or credit hour as “seat time” is no longer an issue, not that it ever truly measured the quality of learning. This new form of degree acquisition is marketed to self-directed adult learners working at certain companies. It allows them to complete modules and then demonstrate mastery of certain competencies (perhaps over the course of as little as a weekend) while still being eligible for federal Title IV financial aid.

In fact, SNHU (which has regular television ads that run here in South Florida and across the US) recruits its students with the promise of “No Courses, No Grades, No Instructors.” Moreover, SNHU President Paul LeBlanc, who is currently on a three-month leave of absence while serving as a senior adviser to the undersecretary of education Ted Mitchell, boldly said, “It’s conceivable that someone could earn their associate’s degree in under six months and for $1,250.” That means some students should be able to earn bachelor’s degrees for well under $10,000, a popular target price for a four-year degree, particularly among conservative Republican governors in Florida Texas, and Wisconsin.

We have had non-traditional external degree programs with alternative instructional models that awarded credit hours earned in a given semester for a long time. For decades, we have also had CBE programs that awarded some college credit to students based upon knowledge (not just life experience) that was formally assessed by the faculty through a portfolio or exam. However, students were never previously eligible for federal student aid prior to this new direct assessment initiative. This is the linchpin of the new model.

Thus, it is certainly no surprise that soon after the DOE approved three institutions’ “direct assessment” degree programs (first SNHU, then for-profit Capella University, and the University of Wisconsin Extension) that other colleges (including Northern Arizona University and Bellevue College, among others) would also soon seek and obtain approval for this flexible degree option. Likewise, the for-profit online behemoth Kaplan University and its Mount Washington College, along with another giant for-profit institution, Walden University (owned by that Laureate Education), also earned approval from the DOE and its regional accrediting agencies for similar direct assessment programs.

Is this a harbinger of things to come? Will other colleges or universities routinely accept these credits and degrees into graduate programs? Will employers have confidence in this new self-paced learning and anytime, anywhere approach? Will they understand and agree to recognize the new competency-based transcripts? This will be something to watch in the coming months.

This is the first of a three-part series by Robert Hill discussing the rise of competency-based education and its impact on higher education.

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Arizona State University. (2015). Global Freshman Academy. Retrieved from

Obama, B. (2013, August 22). Remarks by the President on college affordability in Buffalo, New York. Retrieved from

Southern New Hampshire University. (2015). College for America. Retrieved from 

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