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Bringing Competency to the Forefront

Employers have long complained about the difficulty of determining which recent graduates possess the right skills to succeed in the workforce.

According to a survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education last year, 43 percent of employers value experience more than traditional academic credentials. These employers said they prefer new hires who can display a level of competency as opposed to trusting their postsecondary grades.

As a result, higher education institutions are responding to the need to recognize, display and vouch for student competency upon graduation.

One way institutions are addressing the concerns of employers is by focusing efforts on implementing competency-based programming, just as Western Governors University did when they opened their doors. This approach to teaching and learning, usually aimed at non-traditional students, is intended to not only increase accessibility, affordability and flexibility of higher education for learners, but to also provide students the opportunity to master a set of in-demand competencies to help them succeed in the labor market. Schools across the United States are already planning and implementing their own versions of these programs.

In November of last year, the University of Wisconsin (UW) announced their intention to launch a competency-based program aimed at adult students. Their UW-Flex program is set to begin in fall 2013.

“Students will determine the pace of their learning,” Ray Cross, Chancellor of UW Colleges and UW-Extension, said in a press release last year explaining UW-Flex. “Whenever they’re ready to demonstrate mastery of a given subject, they complete the assessment and move on to the next step.”

College for America, developed by Southern New Hampshire University, is another competency-based program built on self-paced, affordable online programming.

However, simply rolling out a program focused on competencies may not be enough, as far as the interests of employers looking to hire recent graduates go. Helping graduates communicate their competencies to prospective employers is a challenge.

“Employers basically find the transcript useless in evaluating job candidates,” Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, told Inside Higher Ed. “Higher education definitely needs to start fresh with a redesign of its public descriptions of student accomplishment.”

One institution has recently taken the initiative to launch a new supplementary transcript that students can easily show to prospective employers. Northern Arizona has designed a transcript that details the skills and level of mastery that a student has achieved, making this document a valuable tool for employers to accurately assess the skill-level of job candidates.

Many experts are praising the institution for pioneering efforts to communicate competency-based skills learned by students in a way that makes sense to employers. Clifford Adelman, senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said that while the competencies transcript is not a perfect solution to the problem, it is a step in the right direction.

“God bless them for actually trying,” he told Inside Higher Ed. “These are more effective statements than listing courses.”