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The Case for Proficiency-Based Programs: Access and Economic Growth


AUDIO | The Case for Proficiency-Based Programs: Access and Economic Growth
Proficiency-based programs can be a challenge to create, but they give universities a new way to boost access for students and support the regional economy.

The following interview is with Linda Schott and Ray Rice, president and provost, respectively, of the University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI). Earlier this year, UMPI announced it would begin basing its academic programs on proficiencies students must master to earn a degree; a major shift for a public institution. In this interview, Schott and Rice discuss the new focus on proficiency-based programming in a little more detail, and share their thoughts on the business sense of this change of direction.

1. Why did UMPI consider launching a proficiency-based program in the first place?

Linda Schott (LS): We did so for a number of reasons. First of all, in 2012, the State of Maine passed a law that all public schools would transition to proficiency-based education by 2018 and several of the high schools around the state have been making that transition. That was one of the most important reasons for us doing this. We saw a market niche as well as a public need for a university to begin aligning itself with the same kind of educational approach.

Another reason is we really wanted to ensure our students were ready for employment. The employers in our area were saying that students coming out weren’t necessarily prepared for the workforce. An important piece of this for us was just articulating clearly what skills and abilities and competencies every student would have when they graduate from the university, and aligning those with what employers say they want in their employees.

Ray Rice (RR): It’s very important for our students to be able to demonstrate those competencies, so we’ve built in a method in which students can document the artifacts through their mastery of the various levels of competency. Employers can actually see the work students have produced, rather than just getting transcript analysis or getting a diploma for students.

2. How can proficiency-based programs support the access mission of your institution?

LS: UMPI is over 70 percent students who would be considered underserved, underprepared and/or economically disadvantaged, so the access part of our mission is critical.

Unfortunately, the way we’ve been doing it has not yielded a high graduation rate. We really saw the need to do things differently.

Our belief is that this form of education that makes the expectations very clear, that provides a diversity of ways to demonstrate one’s learning and acknowledges different learning strengths and weaknesses, that this will really help a broader range of those students [to] be successful.

RR: Aroostook County is the largest geographic county in the state, but is also one of the counties most economically challenged, so there’s a lot of need for developing a workforce with a four-year degree and, beyond that, [one that] can really help stimulate the economy here, and we play an active role in that.

3. Do you think offering proficiency-based degrees will help more adult students earn degrees as well as traditional-aged students coming out of proficiency-based high schools?

LS: Absolutely. Adults want an education that’s more relevant to the real world, more applied, one that acknowledges their prior learning, and there is a lot of overlap between that and the theories and pedagogies being used in the proficiency-based high schools. This direction enabled our institution to do both. Currently, about a third of our student body would be considered non-traditional and we hope this will enable us to do an even better job.

4. How will the proficiency-based program help to expand UMPI’s national reach?

LS: We didn’t set out to do this to expand our national reach. We’re very much a regional-serving institution so we’re really concentrated on serving Aroostook County, the state of Maine and Western New Brunswick. But having said that, we have an ideal student in mind; the [type of] student who is a very good fit for this. We have gone through and made a list of high schools that are student-centered and proficiency- or competency-based and we will be reaching out to those.

RR: As many institutions did too, we’ve developed, over the past four years, online-based programming as well. So we have fully-online majors, which we’re converting to proficiency-based majors as well. We think that will make those programs more desirable for students coming from those backgrounds, as well as adult learners looking for programs such as that.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about creating a proficiency-based program and taking a small institution in very different directions to increase this market share?

LS: It’s been extremely exciting. The largest surprise is how well the faculty have embraced this. This is a huge change. We’re asking the faculty to completely rethink the classes some of them have been teaching for 15 to 20 years, to rethink their assessment. We’re asking them to work together at a much higher level than they’ve ever done before and they have really embraced it.

RR: There was a certain level of trepidation when we were talking about this, but the faculty has been incredibly open to it. It wasn’t an instantaneous buy-in but it was certainly a willingness to embrace the concept. For them to realize they could begin to actually experiment with how they deliver courses, the construction of their courses into multi-credit, interdisciplinary, project-based, multi-instructor communities of students — rather than these conventional discipline-based, three-credit courses — really inspired the interest of the faculty.

LS: There’s a lot of concern about high school students making a transition to college or university and being successful, and then there’s an even greater amount of concern for university students making the transition into employment. We’ve designed a system here that addresses both of those concerns. It reaches back into the high schools and we’re working to align up the proficiencies [of] those students. That seamless transition point is something very distinctive here.

This interview has been edited for length.

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