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The Path Forward for Competency-Based Education

The EvoLLLution | The Path Forward for Competency-Based Education
Competency-based programming can create pathways for non-traditional students to earn their postsecondary credentials and move into high-paying careers, but only with the removal of key institutional roadblocks and greater collaboration between institutions and industry.

Competency-based models for higher education have grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years. What once was a relatively niche and unique approach to delivering programming now finds itself in the media spotlight. With this spotlight, though, comes great expectations for what competency-based education (CBE) might accomplish. In this interview, Chari Leader Kelley reflects on why CBE has become so popular and shares her thoughts on what it will take for CBE to meet its now incredibly lofty expectations.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why has the competency-based model of higher education become so popular over the past few years?

Chari Leader Kelley (CLK): To be honest, the popularity of competency-based education (CBE) models is in large part due to media hype.  This is not to be critical or even glib.  With so much focus on what’s wrong with higher education, everyone has been looking for the next big thing after MOOCs and CBE is it.

Some institutions (Western Governors University and Excelsior College, for example) have long used competency-based approaches. However, it wasn’t until major media began questioning the value of a degree that national and state leaders began to really question the status quo of postsecondary education.  The unparalleled rise in tuition over the past decades, the exploding student loan debt (now $1.2 trillion dollars), and the pressing needs for many of the nation’s adults to find new jobs combine to create a demand for change.

Amy Laitinen’s Cracking the Credit Hour (2012) brilliantly questioned the link between learning and the credit hour (on which federal financial aid is predicated).  All of this set the stage for the Department of Education to become interested in funding experiments in CBE, with Southern New Hampshire University being the first CBE program approved.

The good news is that CBE does address some important higher education issues, such as:

  • Enabling students to leverage their prior learning
  • Assuring learning through demonstrations of competencies
  • Providing a self-paced element—take as little or as much time to master the competencies
  • Providing the opportunity for highly motivated students to complete their degrees more quickly and for less money

The changing demographics of today’s college students is another factor in CBE program growth nationally.  A majority of today’s students now exhibit many of the attributes of students we used to call “non-traditional.”  These students, who are diverse, working full or part time while attending college, and financially independent find traditional brick-and-mortar morning classes impossible to attend.  Assuring these students have access to postsecondary education is an economic imperative.

Evo: What do you think the long-term impact of CBE will be on student debt?

CLK: The jury is still out on this.  Presumably, the goal is to reduce the cost of a degree, but with the clock ticking on subscription models (a set tuition fee per semester), it could actually end up costing students more. In theory, if a student is able to demonstrate competencies upfront and only focus on the competencies they need to master in order to graduate, the cost of the degree will be less.  More importantly, if employers are involved in CBE program development, then the jobs and career opportunities to which so many of us aspire will be there for CBE graduates. A good education and a good job mean a more dependable means to pay off student loans and reduce overall debt.

Evo: How might a wider adoption of CBE impact the completion rate and, by extension, the health of the labor market?

CLK: My dream would be for CBE programs to enable the 39 million adults in the U.S. with some college and no degree to return to school, leverage their prior learning, and earn credentials that are greatly needed in their communities.  There is a big opportunity for CBE, done well, to make it possible for adults to obtain the training and education they need to be qualified for higher-paying, high-need jobs.

This will require a deeper collaboration with business and industry to develop the CBE programs that are needed.

CBE is a degree completion strategy being funded by the nation’s largest foundations.  In my humble opinion, today’s CBE programs will improve degree completion rates for the two dozen or so programs nationally.  These “experiments” are designed to measure the efficacy of CBE.  Once the data are in and tallied, we will know for sure if student progression is faster with CBE or not.  I’m betting on high-quality CBE

Evo: What are some of the most significant roadblocks standing in the way of the wider adoption of CBE programming by institutions?

CLK: In my view, there are four major roadblocks:

1. Resources to support faculty.

Re-thinking traditional higher education is challenging.  Rethinking every course, determining competencies and how those competencies can be demonstrated is even more challenging.  Linking all of the competencies across the major and then across the curriculum for the degree is, well, challenging!  For faculty to truly have the time to do this work will require more resources in terms of release time and professional development budgets.

2. Regional accrediting bodies

Building high-quality CBE courses and programs using direct assessment methods is like putting square pegs into a round holes for accreditors.  Yes, all of the regionals are interested in learning outcomes and evidence of learning, but academic structures supporting CBE direct assessment require a disaggregation of traditional faculty roles.  Faculty roles include coaching, advising and mentoring students through the curriculum, experts to develop assessments, and faculty to curate the learning resources.  Information technology infrastructure is needed to better track student progress.  Accrediting teams have little to no experience with CBE.

3. Financial aid eligibility

Moving from academic progress measured by credit hours and semesters to CBE progress measured by competencies is a major hurdle for the Department of Education and for CBE administrators.  Determining what standards of progress are for CBE and agreeing upon an aid distribution formula that sustains the student is all new territory.  Some would say it’s fraught with opportunities for abuse.  Therefore, it will take many experiments to understand how best to administer aid for true CBE.  Of course many of today’s CBE programs are tied to the credit hour, for the purposes of assuring Title IV eligibility.

4. Institutional will

Only when there is true institutional will for CBE can it ever take hold.  Change is so difficult for our entrenched methods of measuring student progress, registering for courses, and administering financial aid.  Systems change requires strategic thinking and commitment.  Students don’t yet understand it, so if the market is not demanding CBE, its growth will be slow.

Evo: Given that the main goal of CBE is to prepare students for the workforce by guaranteeing skill mastery, how might non-accredited education providers (like bootcamps) compete with colleges and universities in this space?

CLK: I think it’s like apples and oranges. Colleges and universities are not only building skills, but are also providing general education designed to expose students to a greater breadth of knowledge.  There are more opportunities in a college education for students to develop higher-order thinking, analytical skills, and an overall awareness of what it means to be human and a citizen.

Bootcamps are wonderful at focusing on a skillset leading directly to jobs.  We need both kinds of providers to deliver high-quality curriculum.  There’s plenty of work and loads of opportunities to go around and be shared by all.

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