Exploring New Approaches to Higher Education: The Expansion of Competency-Based Programs


Sep 29, 2015

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Competency-based higher education—which is built on the idea that degrees should be awarded based on a student's demonstrated mastery of knowledge, skills, and abilities as opposed to time spent in a classroom, or “seat time”—is a key topic of discussion especially as Congress works to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, the key piece of legislation that dictates federal policy over higher education.

For students, the opportunity to personalize learning and utilize online platforms at their own pace, rather than work through a common syllabus, can hold considerable appeal. Competency-based programs allow students to gain credit for the knowledge, skills, and abilities they have rather than relearning what they already know. The programs also have the potential to increase employability of graduates by focusing on more applied material and ensuring that programs are explicitly linked to employer needs.

An additional reason for recent interest in competency-based programs is the assertion that it can upend student cost models through subscription-based tuition models where students can take as many courses as desired for a fixed price each term as opposed to the traditional method of paying by the credit hour. While this “all you can eat” approach could drive up costs and/or limit completion rates for students who are less able to make fast and steady progress, it offers substantial cost savings to students who move quickly through material.

Although these programs show promise to reduce costs and improve outcomes and efficiency for many students, they also raise many questions and implementation challenges, according to a recent RAND review of such programs in Texas. For example, many institutions have faced significant challenges in integrating these programs into existing administrative structures and institutional cultures. Additionally, institutions must also respond to concerns that the programs may be of lower quality than traditional programs due to their applied nature, limited face-to-face interaction, and modularization. And finally, the personalized, self-paced format of these programs may not be appropriate for all students. Yet many of these concerns can be addressed through careful design, implementation, and evaluation of competency-based programs. Supporters also point out the large opportunity for innovation that many dealing with higher education challenges claim is sorely needed.

The study of Texas competency-based programs has also highlighted several external challenges. For instance, existing federal and state regulations and accreditation processes built on the traditional “seat time” model can create implementation barriers and inadvertently encourage institutions to make competency-based programs look similar to traditional programs. One way this can be done is by linking competencies back to traditional courses and retaining credit hour–based tuition structures. An additional challenge is the changing policy environment. A July 2015 Senate hearing on the barriers to and opportunities for innovation in higher education raised a number of policy areas that must be addressed, including the importance of creating more flexible federal requirements around financial aid and accreditation as well as the need to measure student outcomes in order to monitor program quality.

Congress and the Department of Education are attempting to address this challenging policy environment. A 2014 Department of Education program allowed institutions to apply to be part of a small group of experimental programs that would exempt the institutions from certain regulations pertaining to credit hours and financial aid while allowing them to develop innovative programs. Recent discussions about federal regulations and competency-based education are a step in the right direction.

However the federal government should ensure that any increase in competency-based education programs are accompanied by strong evaluation of the experimental sites and other existing competency-based programs. Such an evaluation will allow regulators and researchers to answer questions such as whether the programs lead to better outcomes for students and employers, what institutional support is necessary for successful implementation, and how institutions can ensure that these programs complement traditional programs rather than cannibalize them. Unfortunately, a significant delay in releasing Department of Education experimental site guidelines has presented barriers to these institutions and their ability to innovate. In addition, these experimental sites are still too new to offer the evidence needed to inform Higher Education Act reforms.

As with most new and promising innovations, there is a tension between those who advocate for rapid development and implementation, and those who would prefer to maintain the status quo. Although rapid expansion would ensure that institutions can serve pent-up demand for more flexible programs—and students can benefit from such programs more quickly—there are always risks that missteps in implementation could harm students and derail the expansion effort. Policymakers and educators must determine if the risks of maintaining the status quo outweigh the potential benefits of competency-based programs, especially for those students who are ill-served by the traditional higher education model.

For a balanced path forward, policymakers and institutions must allow appropriate innovation through experimental sites and other early competency-based programs to determine whether competency-based education is effective and for whom. Where studies are encouraging, researchers must delve deeper to provide evidence-based policy and guidance to support appropriate wider implementation. The goal should be to emerge with refined approaches to competency-based higher education that consider the effectiveness of different approaches to particular types of students. By using such an evidence base, state and federal policymakers can be truly innovative in providing high-quality opportunities for all students.

Lindsay Daugherty is a policy researcher and Trey Miller is an economist at the RAND Corporation. Van Davis was director of innovations in higher education at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board when he co-authored the study on which this commentary is based. He is now associate vice president of higher education research at Blackboard Inc.

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