Opening the Castle Gates
It will be critical for colleges and universities to adapt their credentialing models to the competency-based approach in order to remain relevant to the needs of students and the workforce.

The most surprising aspect of the current debate about whether students should be granted credit hours for demonstrating competency on a specific set of materials (e.g., earning credit for exam performance after completing a massive open online course, or MOOC) is that the proposal is controversial at all. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to demonstrate that, when our current system is operating as we think it should, granting academic credit is based on anything other than competency-based testing.

Few serious academics would argue that students should be granted credit simply for time served in the classroom, and an unscientific review of course syllabi posted on several different university sites suggests that good performance on exams, quizzes and written assignments is enough to earn students credit for almost all courses, especially at the lower level. My cursory review of syllabi found few instances where “class participation” counted for more than a fraction of the final grade. Almost universally, grades are derived primarily or wholly from a critical analysis of the student’s output, which might include test grades, papers, contribution to in-class or online discussion, oral presentations (which can be provided asynchronously by posting a recording in a course’s online drop box), portfolio or other work.

We also need to acknowledge that most colleges and universities already grant academic credit for competence demonstrated on the Advanced Placement (AP) exams, and the College Board, which administers the AP examinations, does not require students to have taken any particular course before writing one of the exams. Given the range of examinations offered by the College Board and the policies of many schools, it is easy to imagine scenarios whereby a student could earn credit for at least one semester, and perhaps even the first year, of college without ever having taken a traditional course. A home-schooled or motivated high school student who studies calculus using the Khan Academy materials can take the Calculus BC exam and receive up to eight credits (depending on the policies of the accepting university) for earning a 4 or 5 on the AP exam. What is perplexing from the perspective of someone from outside the academy is why students can earn credit for AP exams if they take them before they start college, but there is no clear way for them to earn the same credits if they take the same test at the end of their sophomore year of college, earning the same grade on the exam. The inconsistency evident in such policies is hard to justify.

What makes this even more of a mystery to the public is the steady drumbeat of reports suggesting students at many institutions are not learning as much as they should in the courses we seek to defend. The media frenzy following the publication of Arum and Roska’s “Academically Adrift” in 2011 provides the most vivid example, but these are just a few stories in a long string of articles about inflated grades given to (not earned by) students who study little or not at all, while learning less than they should.

And all of this is taking place against the backdrop of an economy in which the cost of college is rising much faster than the earnings of most families and in which a degree is increasingly seen as essential for any person hoping to earn a good living. These concerns run deep enough that college cost received significant attention in President Obama’s State of the Union speech, and his administration has released a college score card which intends to describe the extent to which colleges are delivering value for dollars invested.

It’s a perfect storm: inconsistent policies and practices, escalating costs, increasing concern about value, families’ declining ability to pay for traditional educational experiences, new forms of educational delivery (e.g., MOOCs) and new forms of accountability. It is hard to predict when, but the widespread implementation of systems to grant college credit and, eventually, college degrees for demonstrated competencies appears to be inevitable.

Now is a good time to consider how we would restructure our enterprise if we embraced good performance on AP or similarly rigorous exams as a way for students to earn credit. We could rely on exams to demonstrate content mastery and focus face-to-face education on creating the profoundly life-changing experiences we often promise. Recently, there has been much excitement around “flipped classrooms,” in which students gain familiarity with the materials through online lectures or other material. Class time is then used for working through tough problems and applying the material to real-world situations. Maybe we are thinking too small; perhaps it’s time to flip the whole student experience.

Rather than defending the castle from the infidels, colleges and universities would do well to embrace the future and determine how they are going to thrive in this new economy.

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Readers Comments

Henry Smalling 2013/03/26 at 8:49 am

Well said, Richard Holmgren. It is absurd to think that high school students have an easier time earning college credit than adults, many of whom have subject matter expertise through their work experiences. It is my hope that administrators will take note of their own contradictory stances and work to rectify them quickly.

Otto Greiss 2013/03/26 at 9:35 am

The biggest issue is that we haven’t seen a large-scale move by administrators to introduce (or even consider, for that matter) a new model of higher education. Instead, we’re stuck with a post-baby boom model that fails to account for adult students, second careers, etc. American higher education is in dire need of systemic change. It remains to be seen whether institutions have the willpower to introduce it.

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