Is Competency-Based Education Worth the Investment?

Is Competency-Based Education Worth the Investment?

Over the past year or two, as the manic buzz about MOOCs settled down to a steady hum, many predicted that competency-based education (CBE) would follow as the next big thing in higher education. There are many variations on the theme of CBE, but Cali Morrison, the communications manager at the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) offers a succinct definition: “self-paced, mastery-based education, often supported by technology.” Basically, learners must master and demonstrate competence on a predetermined array of assignments, tasks and skills in order to earn their degrees. This is in contrast to traditional degree programs, where students “show face” at class, virtually or in-person, over a fixed number of weeks, and earn passing grades to accumulate a minimum number of credits.

Late last year, Paul Fain reported that around 600 institutions are working on developing CBE programs. CBE has existed for decades in some fields, for example, the health professions (thank goodness—imagine being the first heart surgery patient of a doctor who had only read some books, passed some tests, and labeled a few diagrams!). In older versions of CBE, competencies are equated to traditional credits and courses.

A handful of the newer CBE programs are based on “ direct assessment” in which learning is not tied to the credit hour. However, entire CBE programs are hard work to develop and represent a major commitment of resources for a college or university. Providers strive to make the programs affordable to students, but the programs are not all currently eligible for federal financial aid because the U.S. Department of Education is still struggling to apply rules designed for credit-hour based programs to more innovative credentialing structures. In some cases, like College for America at Southern New Hampshire University, the programs are developed in partnership with employers who invest substantially in the programs through tuition assistance for employees.

As with any model of education, questions must be asked about whether CBE represents a worthwhile investment of student time and money, institutional effort and resources, and taxpayer funds. Furthermore, for what fields of study and for what kinds of people does CBE represent a viable model to prepare learners for productive careers and responsible citizenship? Are CBE models as good as—or even better than—traditional models of education in achieving these goals?

Time for Questions

One concern that has been raised about CBE programs is that some may be overly vocational in content. Some fear that this, together with the asynchronous and online nature of the programs, may prevent students from developing non-cognitive or “soft” skills. Providers of CBE programs counter that soft skills, such as the ability to collaborate with peers in completing a task, are explicitly targeted in their programs and constitute competencies alongside the “hard skills” such as being able to calculate summary statistics from a set of data.

In 2015, Hart Research Associates conducted a survey of employers commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. A significant finding was that employers place most value on a potential employee’s “demonstrated proficiency in skills and knowledge that cut across all majors…written and oral communication skills, teamwork skills, ethical decision-making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings.” This being the case, it would appear critical to assess whether students are indeed acquiring such skills through whichever educational experiences they pursue: CBE degrees, traditional in-person or online degrees, MOOCs, nanodegrees and so on. The problem is that it is no easy task to devise objective measures of soft skills. How many of us could provide a tangible definition of “critical thinking,” let alone agree when we observe it?

Where’s the Evidence?

So how can we start to get a handle on whether CBE programs are a worthwhile investment for students, employers and taxpayers? I suggest asking employers to rate employees who graduate from CBE programs on a number of well-defined hard and soft skills. For example, can the graduate make accurate diagnoses of bone fractures from X-rays, or can she or he develop a complete list of follow-up items from a meeting and ensure they are executed. It turns out that College for America (CfA) is doing just that for its CBE programs and is also assessing whether attending CfA leads to career benefits such as promotions and greater leadership responsibilities. As Jerry Rekart, director of research and analytics at CfA, stresses, “the notion of workforce relevance is part of our mission.” He explains that such a study is needed to “validate the curriculum and the investment students are making in terms of time, and that companies are making in terms of tuition assistance.”

Ideally, employer ratings of the skills of CBE graduates and the career benefits accruing from completing these degrees would be compared with those associated with traditional degree programs. If we can then compare the costs to students and taxpayers of CBE programs with the costs of traditional degree programs, we can begin to evaluate which model provides the best return on investment.

With my tax checks recently mailed and my children nearing college age, I am glad that College for America, the first direct assessment CBE program to be eligible for federal financial aid, is starting to ask these important questions. I sincerely wish other institutes of higher education would, too.

Fiona Hollands (@EdResearcher) is the associate director and senior researcher at the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education (CBCSE) at Teachers College, Columbia University. 

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