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Research Questions

  1. How might competency-based higher education present a potential solution to concerns about low completion rates and growing costs in higher education?
  2. What are the limitations and benefits of competency-based education?
  3. What are the main features of competency-based programs in Texas and across the United States? How do these features vary across programs?
  4. What lessons can be learned from the national literature and the experiences of programs in Texas about facilitators and barriers to implementation of competency-based programs?
  5. What areas of policy and research should be explored as policymakers consider expanding competency-based education?

In recent years, the White House and other key stakeholders have raised concerns about both the effectiveness of higher education in meeting the needs of students and employers, as well as the increasing cost of higher education for students. Stakeholders are calling for new, innovative approaches to address these concerns. Competency-based higher education, which reorients programs to focus on mastery of competencies rather than time in the classroom, has risen as one potential solution to concerns about effectiveness and cost. This report describes the landscape for competency-based education in Texas, documenting six institutions that currently offer these programs and recent efforts of the state to support them. To describe programs in Texas, a review of relevant documents and web pages took place and interviews were conducted with program administrators, a sample of students enrolled in one of the programs, and a state policymaker. Findings show that the programs in Texas are similar across many areas, such as flexible calendars, student-driven learning, and assessment-based progression through courses. Differences in a few areas include tuition structure, student population, and faculty roles. Students interviewed remarked on positive experiences with competency-based education: the program's low cost, convenience and flexibility, ability to move more quickly through courses, and applied focus. Reviews were also conducted of available literature, placing the Texas experience in the context of the national competency-based higher-education movement. Based on the experiences of the Texas programs and the literature on the national landscape, the report highlights common challenges and some lessons learned.

Key Findings

Competency-Based Programs Have the Potential to Benefit Certain Students

  • Competency-based programs have the potential to increase the alignment between graduate skills and employer needs, as well as addressing degree-completion rates by offering new pathways to students.
  • Program administrators for most of Texas's competency-based programs and a sample of students from one program report that the programs offer many benefits to students.
  • Self-motivated students and students with prior education and work experience may be most likely to be successful in the nonstandard structure of competency-based programs.
  • Competency-based programs offer the potential to obtain degrees and certificates at a significantly lower cost to student, particularly those with subscription-based tuition.

Development of Competency-Based Curriculum Still Has Some Challenges

  • Critics cite a number of concerns about competency-based programs, including the potential threat the programs provide to traditional programs and faculty jobs, concerns about the applied nature of the content and the impact this has on the ability to connect knowledge to theory, and the modularized structure and its inability to translate competencies across settings and to make connections across competencies.
  • Some institutions in Texas and the literature faced challenges with implementation, including: (1) integration of the programs into existing administrative tools and processes, (2) restrictive oversight by the federal government and accreditors, (3) a need to ensure faculty buy-in and provide training, (4) a need to developing the content for the programs, (5) requirements for enhanced student support, (6) a need to develop stronger connections with employers, and (7) challenges with growing and sustaining the programs.

Recommendations

  • Institutions should: (1) Invest time and resources to ensure an adequate understanding of competency-based programs and buy-in among key stakeholders (e.g., faculty, administrative staff); (2) leverage resources such as existing course materials, employer input, and industry standards to define competencies and develop resources; (3) target students who are most likely to be successful in the nonstandard structure of competency-based programs and inform students about the unique aspects of the program; (4) enhance student tracking and support systems; (5) examine attendance policies, financial aid procedures, academic policies, and business processes and practices to ensure they accommodate competency-based programs; and (6) continuously assess competency-based programs to ensure they are effective and sustainable and to ensure continuous improvement.
  • State and federal policymakers should: (1) Consider institutional funding, financial aid, and academic policies and their implications for competency-based programs; and (2) encourage experimentation, assess the effectiveness of competency-based approaches, and facilitate the sharing of best practices.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Understanding Competency-Based Education Programs

  • Chapter Three

    Competency-Based Degree and Certificate Programs in Texas

  • Chapter Four

    A Path Forward for Competency-Based Education in Texas

  • Appendix

    Interview Protocols

Research conducted by

This report was funded by the Lumina Foundation through a grant to the College for All Texans Foundation. The research was conducted by RAND Education, with support from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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