Several universities have announced new degree programs that value competency over time spent in the classroom in response to a proposal from the Department of Education that was released last March.

“The time-centered system just says if you take the coursework, get passing grades and meet our academic standards, you get the degree,” Lumina Foundation President and Chief Executive JamieMerisotis told The New York Times. “Competency is a student-centered, learning-outcome-based model. Where you get the education is secondary to what you know and are able to do.”

Since 1893, to be accredited, universities have based their curriculums on credit hours and years of study, but in light of President Barack Obama’s call for more affordable college educations, educators are seeking to re-evaluate this methodology, particularly for the 37 million Americans who do not have a degree, yet attended college.

Under these new programs, students would be evaluated based on some sort of tangible evidence of learning, such as exams. Generally, students work on their own and at their own pace, and the speed with which a student finishes a degree program affects the cost of the program.
Proponents of competency-based learning point to the discrepancy between sitting in a classroom and measured understanding.

“Now if you can meet the standards without going to college, fine,” Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce Director Anthony Carnevale said. “I mean, I understand that that bothers some people. Obviously this would reduce the demand for college, but if I can take a B.A.-level or graduate-level accounting competency, if I can meet the competency-based criteria for what somebody wants to hire as an accountant, if I never went to college, in the end, who cares?”

But while Carnevale acknowledged the benefits of competency-based learning, he said that the logistics are difficult. How to determine the body of knowledge required for a degree, how to measure a student’s knowledge and skill and how to create the necessary competency exams are all difficult questions that need to be addressed for a competency-based program to work.
“My guess is it’s probably not a substitute for the full experience, that is, there is a part of college education that is experiential, and there’s a part of it that is learning for its own sake,” Carnevalesaid.

Drexel University history professor Amy Slaton, an outspoken critic, agreed.

“It’s a red flag to me,” Slaton told The New York Times. “If you are from a lower socioeconomic status, you have this new option that appears to cost less than a traditional bachelor’s degree, but it’s not the same product. I see it as a really diminished higher education experience for less money and yet disguised as this notion of greater access.”

In addition, critics question the success of exam standardization. Philosophy professor Tom Beauchamp said that when he was in school, he was incorrectly placed into a more advanced German class than was suitable, simply based on the results of an inaccurate competency test.
“My concern here is that these things will become quite routine, as to what your level of competency is, and [the test] really will not gauge it well,” Beauchamp said.

Moreover, the idea of competency-based learning threatens the traditional style of teaching that most university professors are comfortable with.

Overall, while Carnevale said that he did not expect most universities to switch to such a system, competency-based learning has the potential to improve the quality of traditional, classroom learning.

“It will encourage [professors] to focus on what the student knows and can’t do, rather than whether or not they showed up at 7:30 in the morning,” Carnevale said. “The teacher is a problem-solver, not just someone who delivers material.”

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