Visit Modern Campus

The New Breed of Competency-Based Education Degree Programs: A Trend or Fad? (Part 2)

The EvoLLLution | The New Breed of Competency-Based Education Degree Programs: A Trend or Fad? (Part 2)
Higher education institutions have been transformed considerably as leaders strive to adapt to market conditions, but they need to determine whether the move to competency minimizes their responsibilities to students.

This is the second installment of a three-part series by Robert Hill discussing the rise of competency-based education (CBE) and its impact on higher education. In the first installment, Hill outlined the range of innovative approaches to degree completion currently entering the market and mapped out CBE’s rise to the top. In this installment, he discusses the numerous roles of higher education and whether CBE can satisfy them all.

As a full-time seasoned university professor, I am not some ostrich with my head in the sand wistful about what happened to all of our erstwhile residential students. I recognize that few students attend highly selective, prestigious institutions. Most students attend either a public state college or university, and almost half of all our undergraduate students currently attend a community college. I understand the realities of the changing student demographics and the ever-increasing appeal of online education. With the current unemployment situation and college prospects questioning the return on their investment, not to mention the pernicious student loan debt that many graduates accrue, I fully get that affordability and convenience will trump the traditional method of obtaining an academic credential.

I have also long questioned the practice of putting a marginal student, let alone a non-traditional adult learner (and first generation in college) in five “heavy” three-credit courses in their very first semester. That is often a recipe for academic disaster. The literature often refers to these freshman general education courses as high “DWFI” classes (students are often awarded D’s, F’s, W’s for withdrawals and I’s for incompletes). As such, students are starting off already behind the eight ball. However, a new pitfall could develop as many underprepared students are lured into this new, fast, online teach-yourself alternative where they learn entirely on their own for expediency sake, as full-time faculty are slowly replaced with adjuncts, coaches and tutors.

Andrew Delbanco, both in his 2012 book College, and in last year’s Ivory Tower documentary that he co-narrated, expressed that we may be experiencing the last generation for which “going to college means leaving home, living on campus and listening to tenured professors.” He went on to posit, “undergraduate education is on the verge of a radical reordering.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has praised the notion of awarding college credit for what students know instead of their “seat time” and expanding access to affordable higher education. In his new book, Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, wrote about transforming the large state university “into an adaptive knowledge enterprise in real time and at a scale unusual if not unprecedented.”

With grades from successfully completed MOOCs now being officially added to transcripts (as with ASU’s Global Freshman Academy) and the introduction of new competency-based degree models, faculty anxiety may soon increase as we outsource even more instruction and faculty governance. Sadly, too many colleges have already adopted a business philosophy and are viewing their professors as employees, their students as consumers, and their degrees as commodities for sale. Faculty are already seeing increasing numbers of part-time and adjunct professors and fewer tenure-track positions, along with challenges to academic freedom. In public institutions across the country, academic departments have already experienced steep belt-tightening measures to accommodate the huge cutbacks in state and local funding. They have responded by increasing faculty loads and class size, escalating the pressure to get external funding, initiating hiring and salary freezes, and sharply increasing tuition. In some private institutions, the faculty are even experiencing cuts to professional development, conference travel budgets and sabbaticals. Additionally, with the increasing accountability movement, it is no wonder that professors are consistently reporting longer work weeks and added pressures all while trying to balance their current teaching, research and service demands. However, if the full-time professors fail to take the lead or join in on these important academic discussions of non-traditional degree pathways, our future will be defined by those outside the academy. Faculty need to exercise their authority in deciding new curricula, or a change in instructional methods, as leading the academic mission of an institution is the responsibility of this key stakeholder.

Jeffrey Selingo in his 2013 book College (Un)bound wrote:

“Right now we measure learning by time spent in a seat. They test you on the way in, they see what you know, and you basically focus on what you don’t know. What I think the disruption will be is that some students could finish in 2 1/2 years. There’s nothing really magic about 120 credits in four years. It’s just tradition.”

When I witness the steady demise of liberal arts undergraduate education and read about the recent closing of Sweet Briar College in Virginia, along with the outside influence of technology leaders and dubious venture capitalists, I wonder if I am exceedingly unrealistic and impractical in my view of higher education. Am I quixotic to think that there is more to higher education than merely supplying trained skilled workers for the global economy? The primary purpose of the first American colleges and universities was the development of students’ moral character, no less than their intellects. Not so long after our early Colonial Colleges opened, we started trying to answer the question of what is the purpose of higher education in America. Is it for education or for training? Today we are still asking who goes to college and what should be studied there.

My concern is should we not also be producing students who are independent and critical global thinkers? Whatever happened to the recognition that a university education helps students understand who they are and what excites them besides merely mastering competencies to become prepared for a job? Albert Einstein was the one who said, “The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”

This is the second installment of a three-part series by Robert Hill discussing the rise of competency-based education and its impact on higher education. To read the final installment, click here.

– – – –


Delbanco, A., (2012). College: What it was, is, and should be. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

Selingo, J. L. (2013). College (Un)bound. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 

Author Perspective: