Competency-based education opens new doors

College isn’t what it used to be, and we aren’t talking about professors, football, and frat parties. The cost of a college degree is rising, completion rates are dropping, and student populations are changing.

According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, 55 million new American jobs will be created by the end of this decade.  Of them, 40 million – more than 70 percent – will require a college-level certificate or degree. Our higher education system needs new and innovative ideas to meet the changing needs of students and our workforce.

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Competency-based education is a different approach to delivering higher education. Instead of requiring students to sit through a preset complement of courses to earn degrees based on the numbers of credit hours they have completed, competency-based models allow students to demonstrate proficiency in subjects or areas of competence, often at their own pace.

Competency-based education represents a tremendous opportunity for higher education and the President and the Department of Education have taken notice, and so should congress.

Last month, the Department of Education issued a call for ideas for broader experimentation with competency-based programs. If the Department moves ahead to authorize experiments, such projects would allow waivers from certain federal laws and regulations to test new approaches to using federal aid to pay for competency-based programs. 

Experimentation would allow for flexibility with some of the time-based statutes and regulations in order to test new approaches for using federal student aid to pay for competency-based degree programs. This would enable both institutions and the federal government to engage in responsible innovation and learn which types of programs work best and whether there are effects on other policy goals such as increased student retention, program completion, and college affordability.

Higher education, as a regulated industry, needs to create “safe spaces” for trying out new models.  Experimental sites create these safe spaces and can provide a laboratory for better understanding, collecting data, and smartly informing policy.  These sites allow us to test the premise that competency-based education could help students accelerate completion of a meaningful, high-quality credential while reducing the expense to students and taxpayers alike.  These experiments modulate the demands of the extreme reformers who want to throw the credit hour overboard and those traditionalists that stifle innovation. 

There is also a strong public demand for learning-based innovation to be supported by the federal government. A 2012 Gallup/Lumina Foundation Poll found 87 percent of Americans believe students should be able to receive college credit for knowledge and skills acquired outside of the classroom, and 75 percent of those polled said that if they could be evaluated and receive credit for what they know, they would be more likely to enroll in higher education.

Competency-based education is one of the few bi-partisan areas of agreement in Washington, members of the executive and legislative branches have expressed interest in these programs. We hope that these experiments will open the door to innovation and allow the Department, institutions and policymakers to see the benefits of better, more-personalized pathways for students while at the same time working to mitigate the potential pitfalls of exposing federal Title IV funds to institutions and providers with new academic delivery and business models. 

Our institutions, along with at least another twenty or more colleges and universities, are offering students new competency-based pathways to a degree.  We support the U.S. Department of Education’s interest in fostering responsible innovation and experimentation with these learning models. We believe competency-based models have the potential to meet the needs of students from all backgrounds.

Box is chancellor pf the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University.

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