The EvoLLLution | The Push Towards Outcomes-Based Institutional Strategies
With declining available resources and growing external skepticism, colleges and universities need to find ways to meet growing accountability expectations while keeping costs down for learners.

In American higher education there is a growing push by policy makers and the general public for greater transparency and accountability. Recently the courts upheld the U.S. Department of Education’s gainful employment rule, which was designed to measure the performance of job-related programs and ensure that graduates can be employed at a level that enables them to repay their federal loans. While the rule only applies to for-profit institutions offering postsecondary career-related programs, there is concern that the same type of rules may eventually be applied to public universities or even community colleges.

In addition, the Lumina Foundation just released a set of white papers on performance-based funding. The papers examine the efficacy of applying outcomes measures as a metric for determining the level of state funding for a particular institution. Several states have implemented systems that use different outcomes measures but all are designed to encourage institutions to pay closer attention to their students’ success rates as opposed to just the number of students they enroll. These are being implemented at a time when state funding for higher education is generally declining at a fairly rapid pace.

The growing interest in postsecondary education that leads directly to employment is certainly a factor pushing colleges and universities to examine what they do and how they do it. We regularly see stories in the press and hear comments from legislators questioning the value of a college degree. Even though the research continually affirms the lifetime earning power of liberal arts graduates, some politicians have suggested the states no longer fund such programs since there is not an obvious link to a specific job for, say, a philosophy major. In Kentucky, the new Governor suggested a funding formula for public institutions that would give institutions more money for studies in engineering fields than for French literature. He encouraged students wanting the latter to attend unsubsidized private colleges. While state politicians have always been concerned about assuring state-supported institutions produce graduates that contribute to the economic wellbeing of their state, the public rhetoric seems to be louder these days.

An interesting development along these lines is at the federal level. The U.S. Department of Education now has an experimental program that enables students to use federal financial aid for unaccredited, non-credit bearing educational opportunities. The providers need to partner with institutions already approved to administer financial aid, but this is a start in a new direction. The most popular of these programs are known as boot camps and usually focus on specific computer-related skills that lead to high-paying jobs. The programs guarantee the skills of their graduates. Needless to say the graduate placement rates in these types of programs are impressive.

These are just a few of the factors leading colleges and universities to look for new approaches to educating students. One approach that leads to greater transparency is competency-based education (CBE). In a CBE program, student outcomes are explicit. All the academic decisions are based on helping students reach a specified level of proficiency in all the course- or program-related competencies. In most programs students are not earning grades but rather demonstrating that they know what the faculty has defined as the outcomes. Thus each student must be competent in all aspects of the program. They can’t perform poorly in one course or subject area and still complete the program by using average performance across multiple courses. The net result of this strategy is all graduates really can do and really do know what the program says it is teaching them. Employers recognize this.

Another aspect of CBE programs involves more individualized support for students since they are typically working through course materials at their own pace. This seems to be one of the factors in greater student retention. Since the goal is to reach proficiency, the time it takes a specific student to reach that goal becomes an irrelevant variable. Students can spend more of their time on areas that are tough or unknown to them and breeze quickly through more familiar topics. To make this work for most students, they need “just in time” academic support. However, if an institution tries to do everything the same way they have always done it, they are increasing their costs because they are simply adding personalized academic assistance on top of their regular costs. While CBE can increase student success, it is difficult to justify higher costs in a time of diminishing support. Consequently adopting a CBE model requires re-thinking traditional delivery and student support practices. This re-examination can give rise to new, more transparent practices enabling institutions to accommodate those public demands for greater student success at understandable costs.

As the political season heats up and the resources available to states for higher education declines, I fully expect more institutions to respond to adopting new educational strategies.

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