Published on 2016/06/16

Local Pathways over National Frameworks: Strengthening Competency-Based Education

The EvoLLLution | Local Pathways over National Frameworks: Strengthening Competency-Based Education
By focusing on local and regional partnerships, rather than on trying to construct overarching national frameworks, higher education leaders can create impactful programs that create positive outcomes for their students more quickly.

Many commentators hold out the hope that competency-based education (CBE) can improve the ability of students to market themselves to employers, and improve the ability of employers to select graduates who are good fits for their job roles. As I have argued previously in an Ithaka S+R blog post, the ability of CBE to achieve these goals depends on employers improving their hiring practices and on industry and higher education building stronger partnerships around curriculum.

I do believe such developments are possible—in fact, there are some strong examples today. But visions of a national competency framework are overwrought. Instead, the most promising terrain for integrating CBE in hiring are local and regional economies.

Higher education institutions differ in terms of their governance, mission, values, resources, staff and students, among other things. Even within particular states, there are few opportunities for coordination across institutions. Across states, coordination becomes even harder. Industries are similarly complex. Within industries, like the service or tech industries, the business models, hiring practices, operations and infrastructure, and workforce can vary widely firm-to-firm, region-to-region. Across industries, variation in goals and activities is even more extreme.

Fortunately, the provision of higher education is still a fairly local endeavor. About 74 percent of first-time students attend college in their home state. Many of those graduates then enter their state’s workforce. State officials, college administrators and industry leaders have strong financial incentives to work in partnership to ensure that graduates are earning credentials in fields with strong demand for qualified workers and that those credentials signal that graduates are sufficiently prepared to perform in area jobs.

Looking across the field, I see three different ways in which higher education institutions can work to improve these local pathways:

  • Working with industry leaders to better integrate job-specific skills and competencies into existing curricula and academic pathways so that students have the skills employers seek;
  • Increasing the supply of qualified workers to meet existing unmet demand;
  • Collaborating with state officials and industry leaders to create new demand.

The first approach, working with industry to integrate skills and competencies into existing curricula and pathways, is slowly emerging, likely because much of the innovation in CBE has focused on the development of new discrete programs focused on technical skills which offer certificates or associate’s degrees. A promising way for institutions to get started is through an evolving practice called Tuning USA, a faculty-led, collaborative process whereby faculty members collaborate with state agencies and employers to co-define appropriate outcomes for the institution’s degrees and disciplines. Faculty members across institutions learn from one another throughout the Tuning process, but competencies and outcomes vary based on institutional context. One of the primary goals of Tuning is to ensure that the defined competencies and outcomes align with civic and workforce needs. An explicit component of the process is for participating institutions to consult with and engage local industry in the design process so that students are better prepared for an ever-changing workforce.

In contrast to such general efforts to align programming to industry expectations, Walla Walla Community College (WWCC) in Walla Walla, Washington, focused its CBE efforts specifically on fields with unmet demand for qualified workers. College administrators at WWCC partnered with industry leaders to commission an analysis of job and wage prediction data to identify existing supply shortfalls and future trends in demand. This analysis revealed that construction projects and farming were in decline in the area, so WWCC eliminated its carpentry program and refocused their irrigation courses on fields and lawns instead of farming. In addition, the increasing prevalence of wind turbines in the area revealed a need for qualified turbine technicians, so WWCC partnered with industry leaders to develop a technician training program based on the skills and competencies needed to succeed in that job.

Rather than refining curricula or revamping programs based on demand, East Mississippi Community College (EMCC) in the Golden Triangle Regional Area of northeast Mississippi collaborates with industry partners to create new demand, creating new degree programs to meet that demand. State and local agencies attract manufacturing companies to the Golden Triangle in part by promising that EMCC can train or re-train the local workforce in technical and advanced manufacturing skills. EMCC works with local employers to design training programs and has even developed on-campus training facilities that replicate manufacturing processes so that students can engage in hands-on learning. In 2014-15 alone, EMCC delivered 136,904 hours of training to 6,838 participants.

As these examples indicate, implementing CBE well is time-consuming, costly, and requires significant investments from multiple stakeholders. Since there’s little available evidence on its efficacy, institutions should proceed carefully when jumping on the CBE bandwagon and when they do, should make building partnerships with local industries their primary goal, as in the examples provided here. These examples are by no means the only ones of institutions developing strong industry partnerships, but they do highlight institutional efforts to engage local industry along the entirety of the pathway—from program design, to implementation, to job placement.

It remains to be seen whether CBE will lead to improvements in student outcomes in college and career, but the best investments seem to be those that promote local partnerships rather than national frameworks.

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