Published on 2014/09/26

Three Roadblocks to Creating a Competency-Based Program (Part 1)

Three Roadblocks to Creating a Competency-Based Program (Part 1)
Developing a competency-based program is a massive undertaking for higher education institutions, and demands leaders to overcome some challenges that cut to the core of today’s postsecondary model.
Competency-based education is such an intuitive and appealing concept that once we consider it, we start wondering, “Why did we wait so long?”

In competency-based education, students earn a degree upon demonstrating competency in their chosen field of study rather than upon spending 120 credit hours in school. Under this model, students work hard to attain mastery at their own pace rather than being kept in lockstep with a fixed time schedule. Additionally, in a competency-based system, students are enabled to take risks and aim high with their academic pursuits rather than playing it safe to preserve their grade point average. Following on this, students earn credentials for any competency they master; they’re not penalized for attempting things for which they may not yet be ready. Finally, in a competency-based system the faculty coach, mentor and challenge; the students are in the driver’s seat setting the direction and speed of their learning.

With all of these established and potential benefits, it’s paradoxical that competency-based programs remain the exception rather than the rule.

Major forces maintain the status quo and resist the disruptions of major paradigm shifts. For anyone considering adopting a competency-based model, it’s important to be aware of the challenges and be prepared to conquer them.

These challenges are of three types: upstream challenges to actually build the new model of credentialing; downstream challenges to integrate the new model in the existing system and inner challenges in making sure a complete and authentic paradigm shift takes place. Over the course of these two articles, I will discuss each of these issues in detail.

1. Upstream Challenge: New Model Requires New Tools

The credit hour concept is hard to change because it’s embedded in every process, every tool and every policy within the academic system.

After all, students’ tuition is calculated based on credit hours; financial aid is assessed and continued based on credit hours; student transcripts record credit hours; programs and degrees are accredited and compared using credit hours; faculty loading and compensation are based on credit hours delivered. In fact the whole concept of credit hour was introduced as an administrative tool rather than a measure of educational attainment.

Moving away from the credit hour, or even changing it, requires full support and cooperation from all units within the academic institution: registrar, financial aid, faculty and administration. Accreditation, federal and state agencies are also increasingly aware of and interested in supporting emerging competency-based programs — whether full-fledged or as experimental sites.

At Purdue University, the competency-based degree developed and proposed by the Purdue Polytechnic Institute has managed these challenges thanks to a convergence of support and willingness to make drastic changes to make this work. The degree came about as a grassroots effort by a group of faculty with full support from the University president and board of trustees. Together, they’ve worked for a year in gaining support and collaboration from many strategic academic and administrative partners on campus. In order to mitigate the risks, the competency-based approach is restricted for now to a new degree. This pilot approach is consistent with the process of innovation in industry.

This is the first of a two-part series by Fatma Mili outlining the three most significant roadblocks higher education leaders face when developing new competency-based degree programs. In the second part, Mili addresses the downstream challenge of defining credit equivalencies and the  inner challenge of developing a new way of thinking about higher education.

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Readers Comments

Samantha Avery 2014/09/26 at 1:34 pm

Where has this obsession with the credit hour gotten us in higher education? I agree with Mili that we have given it undue attention and based important decisions (financial aid, credentialing) on it, despite its uselessness as a measure of learning. I’m glad to see higher education move away from this, and anxious to see what next we come up with as an overarching method for assessment.

Fatma Mili 2014/09/28 at 10:04 am

Thank you very much Samantha for your feedback. The Purdue Polytechnic Institute is looking at several aspects of the education and creating a new learning setting in which students are at the helm of their learning. Faculty’s role shifts from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side whereas the student takes a more proactive role. Students graduate being lifelong learners ready to face new trans-disciplinary problems, ready to collaborate, and ready to take action and affect their world. More information can be found at Best regards,

P.J. Allen 2014/09/29 at 8:53 am

In my mind, the biggest challenge will be encouraging the inward paradigm shift to adopt competency-based education. It will be tough to sell if accreditors and other external bodies don’t get on board with removing the credit hour and establishing new measures of accreditation/assessment. What we need is for all higher education stakeholders to undergo this shift so that staff and faculty will feel comfortable adopting it internally.

Fatma Mili 2014/09/29 at 11:30 pm

Hello P.J.,
I fully agree. Ideally we need everyone to get onboard. Paradigm shifts rarely happen that way though. We need a few early adopters to pave the way and absorb some of the risk.

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