Competency-Based Degrees: Coming Soon to a Campus Near You

February 17, 2014

Has distance education significantly affected the business and teaching models of higher education? Certainly. Is it today’s biggest disrupter of the higher-education industry? Not quite. In fact, the greatest risk to traditional higher education as we know it may be posed by competency-based education models.

Competency-based programs allow students to gain academic credit by demonstrating academic competence through a combination of assessment and documentation of experience. The model is already used by institutions including Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, Excelsior College, and others, and is a recent addition to the University of Wisconsin system.

Traditional educators often find competency programs alarming—and understandably so. Earning college credit by virtue of life experience runs afoul of classroom experience, which many educators believe to be sacred. As a colleague recently said, "Life is not college. Life is what prepares you for college."

In fact, traditional educators should be alarmed. If more institutions gravitate toward competency-based models, more and more students will earn degrees from institutions at which they take few courses and perhaps interact minimally with professors. Then what will a college degree mean?

It may no longer mean that a student has taken predetermined required and elective courses taught by approved faculty members. Rather, it would mean that a student has demonstrated a defined set of proficiencies and mastery of knowledge and content.

Competency models recognize the value of experiential learning, in which students can develop and hone skill sets in real-world contexts. For instance, a student with a background in web design may be able to provide an institution with a portfolio that demonstrates mastery of computer coding or digital design. If coding or digital design is a discipline in which the institution gives credit, and the mastery demonstrated is sufficiently similar to that achieved in the classroom, then the institution may grant credit based on that portfolio.

The logic of competency-based credit is compelling. After all, colleges and universities hire most people to teach so that students learn. If students can achieve the desired learning in other ways, then why not provide them with the same credential as those who sat in the traditional classrooms with the traditional faculty members?

Additionally, the competency-based model, so often cast aside by traditional institutions, already exists within their walls. Not only do many colleges give credit for 
real-world learning through (sometimes mandatory) internships, but a version of the competency model has long been part of traditional assessment practices.

Most professors grade students on the basis of their performance on particular assignments, such as papers, tests, and projects. If a student’s final paper reflects a sufficient degree of sophistication and mastery, then the professor gives the student a passing grade, thus conferring credit. But how much can the professor really know about how the student learned the material? If the end is achieved, how much do the means matter?

In primary and secondary education, much is made of measuring students’ growth. A successful teacher moves a student from Point A to Point B. The greater the difference between A and B, arguably, the more effective the teacher. But in higher education, rarely is any effort made to formally assess student growth. Rather, professors typically give grades based on final performance, regardless of students’ starting point. In the classroom, competency models rule, even at traditional institutions.

The primary weakness of competency models, however, is that they can be only as good as the assessment mechanisms they employ, and, unfortunately, no assessment can be a perfect proxy for deep and meaningful learning. Certainly, great education isn’t just about content. It challenges students to consider others’ viewpoints, provides conflicting information, and forces students to reconcile, set priorities, and choose. In the best cases, it engenders a growth of intellect and curiosity that is not easily definable.

Higher-end learning remains the defining value proposition of great teaching within a formal classroom setting. But because it is exceedingly hard to assess, it cannot easily be incorporated into competency models.

Nonetheless, competency models will make significant headway at the growing number of institutions that offer skill-based programs with clearly delineated and easily assessed learning outcomes. They will also appeal to students who want to save time and money by getting credit applied to past experience. Institutions that serve these students will thus find competency models to be a competitive advantage.

Meanwhile, institutions that are unwilling or unable to incorporate elements of a competency model will be forced to defend the value of learning that cannot be easily assessed and demonstrated. That will be a hard message to communicate and sell, especially given that students with mastery of applied and technical skill sets tend to be rewarded with jobs upon graduation. Additionally, noncompetency tuition will almost certainly rise relative to competency-based credit models, which require less instruction and thus can be delivered at lower cost.

The marketplace rarely reacts well to perceived low marginal benefit at high marginal price.

Will there continue to be buyers of the traditional model? Undoubtedly. For some, college is—and will remain—as much about the learning process as about anything else. But for the increasing number of students who seek value and immediately applicable, industry-relevant skills, the competency model will prove awfully enticing.

Joel Shapiro is associate dean of academics at Northwestern University’s School of Continuing Studies.