Competency unbundles college

When nearly three out of four students aren’t enrolled in full-time, four-year degree programs, it’s time to go beyond the credit hour, writes the Gates Foundation’s Daniel Greenstein on Impatient Optimists.

The rigidness of semesters and courses and credit hours doesn’t work for adults who are juggling jobs, family and other priorities while they also work toward a degree – an elaborate dance that too often ends in students leaving school with no degree, but lots of debt. Many of today’s students aren’t interested in a classic college experience of dorms and all-nighters. Rather, they need college to be “unbundled,” and to be able to integrate it selectively, sometimes a course at a time, into their busy and full lives.

Competency-based education, which assesses what students know and can do, provides the flexibility today’s students need, argues Greenstein. In the competency model, students “progress at their own pace and to go deep on material they haven’t mastered, while not having to spend time or tuition on concepts and knowledge they’ve learned elsewhere.”

 Not only are competency-based programs better for so many of today’s students, but they promise considerable advantages for employers, who, right now, evaluate newly-minted grads primarily on where they went to college and their grade point average. Because competency-based programs rely on regular student assessments of specific skills and abilities, they can provide employers with more detailed information about what prospective workers know and can do.

Lumina’s Tuning USA project, the European Union’s Bologna process and the American Association of Colleges & Universities’ LEAP initiative have evaluated the essential elements and outcomes that students must master to earn different degrees and credentials, Greenstein writes. Western Governors University led the way to online competency degrees. Now more traditional institututions, such as Southern New Hampshire University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin system will be offering credits and credentials for competency.

Is it time to dump credit hours?

“Time-based units were never intended to be a measure of student learning,” writes Amy Laitenen of New America Foundation in The Curious Birth and Harmful Legacy of the Credit Hour.

“If credit hours truly reflected a standardized unit of learning,” students wouldn’t have so much trouble transferring credits from one college to another, she writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

. . .  colleges routinely reject credits earned at other colleges, underscoring their belief that credit hours are not a reliable measure of how much students have learned. If higher education doesn’t trust its own credits, why should anyone else?

. . . Without broader agreement about learning outcomes, credits and the value of degrees will remain opaque. Measuring time is easy, but measuring learning is hard. . .  . Those in higher education must roll up their sleeves and commit to the hard work of figuring out together what it is they expect students to know and how best to meaningfully assess what they have learned.

Some colleges are experimenting with the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile, which creates a framework for what students should know and be able to do, regardless of discipline. Lumina also has created Tuning, a process for faculty to “fine-’tune’ their expectations and make them clear to students, other institutions, and employers,” writes Laitenen.

. . . federal policy can help catalyze such efforts by leveraging the government’s authority to use financial aid—a huge incentive for institutions—to pay for learning. Today the multibillion-dollar federal financial-aid system runs on the credit hour. And it gets only what it pays for: time.

Richard Schur, an associate professor of English at Drury University, likes the credit, he writes, also in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Education is a process, not a destination,” Schur writes. It’s “not reducible to a set of facts or skills.”

My paradigm for teaching comes from Socrates. What is interesting about Socrates is that he doubted his wisdom, so he interrogated those who claimed to possess competency, experience, and knowledge. What he frequently learned was that those who claimed to have the answers rarely did.  . . . the Socratic dialogue, imitates what should be happening in the classroom, with its give and take between student and teacher.

I know that the critics of the credit hour will point out how the example of Socrates illustrates precisely what is wrong with the existing model. First, Socrates did not have clear learning objectives for his students; his dialogues meander all over the place. Second, there was no outcome assessment, so we are not sure what, if anything, his interlocutors actually learned from these sessions. Third, this would be a very costly model to implement, especially with all the feasting and drinking. Fourth, this kind of education seems to privilege a life of luxury and wealth, which does not match the backgrounds of today’s students. Last but certainly not least, it is not clear that any of Socrates’ students ever got jobs, probably violating the “gainful employment” rule.

Time matters, argues Schur. It takes time “to have conversation, work on building student habits, develop relationships, and to try to make students into good citizens.”

Tuning for transfer

“Tuning” college courses will help students set a course for graduation and transfer credits from community colleges to four-year institutions, writes Michelle Kalina, director of the Institute for Evidence-Based Change‘s Tuning USA initiative.

Faculty at colleges in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas, and Utah are working to clarify what students should “know, understand, and accomplish” in specific courses.

Through tuning . . . students know what it takes to stay on track toward graduation and how to make choices that will make them more employable-an increasingly important concern given the rising cost of college. Students and their families have a better sense of what can be done with a degree, and employers understand what they can expect from new graduates they hire.

Texas’ higher education system has tuned four engineering disciplines and will add two additional engineering fields, two science majors, mathematics, business and computer and information science.

Because two-thirds of high school graduates in Texas who pursue higher education start at one of the state’s community colleges, Texas also convened representatives from more than 50 institutions to improve the transfer process. Community-college students who want to pursue a baccalaureate degree in civil engineering receive detailed guidance on choosing courses and applying to transfer. Students are informed about the knowledge and skills they will acquire in each course and are provided information about career opportunities ranging from construction and aerospace to manufacturing and public works projects.

In Kentucky, two- and four-year public and private colleges are tuning programs in biology, business, elementary education, nursing and social work.

History is next. The Lumina Foundation will work with the American Historical Association to determine what students should learn in history courses and be able to do when they complete a degree.

Tuning up higher ed

“Tuning”  – clarifying what students should know and be able to do to earn a degree in a discipline  – will help students succeed, writes Michelle Kalina on GOOD.  Colleges in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas and Utah are participating in the Lumina Foundation‘s Tuning USA initiative, which is led by the Institute for Evidence-Based Change.

Texas has tuned four engineering disciplines and plans to tune additional engineering fields,  two science majors, mathematics, business, and computer and information science.

Because two-thirds of high school graduates in Texas who pursue higher education start at one of the state’s community colleges, Texas also convened representatives from more than 50 institutions to improve the transfer process. Community-college students who want to pursue a baccalaureate degree in civil engineering receive detailed guidance on choosing courses and applying to transfer. Students are informed about the knowledge and skills they will acquire in each course and are provided information about career opportunities ranging from construction and aerospace to manufacturing and public works projects.

Similarly, in Kentucky, two- and four-year public and private colleges are working together to tune high-demand programs in biology, business, elementary education, nursing, and social work. In the state’s nursing programs, courses are being tuned to help pave the way for students to transfer from one program or college to another.

Tuning is based on Europe’s Bologna Process, which is “creating a great deal more transparency with respect to what, exactly, students who have earned credits from a given program or university have actually learned,” writes Education Sector’s Kevin Carey.