Redefining the College Degree

Competency-based higher-education programs offer degrees and credentials that may be ideally suited for working adult learners.

A college degree has always been one of the main roads to professional and economic security in a knowledge-based economy. But traditional college degrees aren’t the slam-dunk success driver they once were. Some employers have mixed views on the value of degrees in the workplace; others want advanced degrees.
In highly regulated sectors like health care, for example, employers still view degrees — and the skills they purportedly guarantee — as critical for workplace demands. Other employers use degrees as a proxy signal of general work readiness. Essentially, degrees serve as first-level filter in the hiring process, regardless of whether a degree is actually needed to perform the job in question. And yet another employer group focuses exclusively on skills and/or work experience, completely ignoring or being agnostic toward college degrees.
That last group — the one that is agnostic toward college degrees — has been shrinking dramatically over the past few decades, a trend that is expected to continue. Between 1973 and 2008, the share of jobs in the U.S. economy that required postsecondary education increased from 28 percent to 59 percent, and it is projected that by 2018, 63 percent of all jobs will require a degree. Yet today, only about 40 percent of all adults have a postsecondary degree, so learning leaders are facing a major challenge to meet the future demands of the workplace.
It is going to take more than just the standard effort of enrolling more students from high school. Organizations will need to educate more of the people who are already in the workforce — people who are working full time and balancing demands of work and family. It’s going to take some reimagining of higher education so more people can earn degrees efficiently and effectively.
For countless generations, going to college meant sitting in a classroom to earn a specific number of credits and get a degree. But the landscape of higher education is transitioning away from defining degrees as the amount of hours students spend in a classroom. Instead, schools are adopting approaches that focus on students demonstrating what they know and how they can apply their learning in various contexts. How, where and how long it takes students to learn does not matter in a competency-based education, or CBE, approach. It is changing the way people think of learning, higher education and postsecondary credentials.
Competency-Based Education 101
Competency-based education is actually quite simple when boiled down to its main components. A CBE program is one that defines a set of competencies for a degree or credential and assesses students to make sure they have those competencies. Competencies are essentially learning outcomes, but it’s important to note the term encompasses not just mastery of content knowledge but also the ability to synthesize that knowledge and apply it in multiple real-world contexts.
CBE is not new — competency-based programs designed for adults have existed since the early 1970s. But today’s programs have new design features in terms of learning activities, pace, assessments and pricing.
Learning activities: When programs are designed primarily around competencies and their assessments — not credit hours or courses — they can expand the options that students have to learn. No longer fettered by a 14- to 16-week course structure, many programs are leveraging technology to depart from formal, instructor-led courses. Instead, students learn through online competency-based modules using adaptive learning technologies or through open, free educational resources guided by faculty facilitators or coaches.
This is not the only way, however. Other programs offer this independent learning option alongside traditional courses within a competency-based program. Students have options to take formal, instructor-led courses to complete some skills, while taking the independent learning approach to complete others.
Pace: Many of the newer CBE models are specifically designed so that students engage with the learning activities and competency-based assessments at their own pace. Students with a lot of college-level learning — from work, life or military experiences — or who are highly motivated can progress more quickly.
Alternatively, if students are facing a heavy schedule at work or struggling with a particularly challenging competency, they can slow the pace accordingly.
Assessments: Rigorous and valid assessments are key to competency-based education. Programs typically offer a range of assessments customized to the competencies themselves that require a student to apply skills and knowledge to real-world situations. This is not a series of standardized tests, however. When designed well, the assessments require critical thinking and integration of learning from different subject areas. In some programs, the assessments resemble workplace projects and assignments. In others, the assessments are learning portfolios or essays in which students must demonstrate their learning and competencies.
Student support: Any online program needs to consider how to provide support for students. Self-paced CBE programs have the added challenge of accommodating students who engage in a very individualized way with learning materials, without a formal instructor guiding them every step of the way. In this scenario, it’s common for institutions to incorporate various forms of student support. Often, there are at least two student support functions: course-level mentors or coaches who provide subject-matter support to individuals as they engage with specific learning activities and resources; and program-level coaches who guide and support students as they navigate the entire program.
Pricing: CBE programs vary widely, and so do pricing models. Some programs maintain a close enough connection to the credit hour and can charge tuition on that basis. Some charge by the assessment or groups of assessments. In other programs, students pay a flat rate for a period of time — for example, three or six months during which they learn and demonstrate as many skills as they are able. In this model, students who can proceed quickly through the competency assessment can potentially save a lot of money as well as time.
Competency-based education options are growing fast. There are options for associate and bachelor’s degrees in fields including business administration, management, information technology, health care management, and others. There are also growing options for competency-based technical degrees and certifications through community colleges.
CBE Works for Employers
If employees have the option to pursue a competency-based degree or credential, organizations might want to consider the associated benefits.
First, the CBE program may offer options for employees to go at their own pace. Employees who bring a lot of learning with them from their years of work experience may find it possible to build on that knowledge to progress more quickly toward their goals. That means a company could have a credentialed employee more quickly.
Second, the CBE program may leverage technology solutions to offer the degree at a lower price, with more cost savings for students who progress at a faster pace. If a company provides educational benefits for its employees, CBE could potentially help the bottom line.
Lastly, CBE program graduates don’t just “do the time” and complete a series of courses to rack up a certain number of credit hours and graduate. Rather, the program requires students to demonstrate what they know, and prove they know how to use that knowledge in real-world contexts. With documented competencies, a company will know employees or potential new hires are career-ready and have the skills and knowledge necessary to perform well in the workplace.
According to Inside Higher Ed, more than 350 institutions now offer or are seeking to create competency-based degrees. The rise of CBE within higher education has attracted interest from higher education officials and legislators across the country, many of whom are working to figure out how to support its continued growth. President Barack Obama praised CBE in an August 2013 speech on affordability in higher education, and governors in Indiana, Texas and Wisconsin also have supported competency-based approaches in postsecondary education.
One challenge these officials are working to address is how students in these programs might be able to use federal financial aid. Federal financial aid regulations are in place to ensure both students and taxpayers are shielded from fraud and abuse, yet many of the regulations are not an easy fit for programs that are self-paced, assessment-based and highly flexible in design. There is hope on the horizon, however, as new federal experiments are underway to test different models for using financial aid for CBE programs.
Rethinking Higher Education
The steps taken to move beyond the credit hour framework are also helping colleges rethink higher education in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and fairness. Competency-based education programs can be seen as more efficient in that they focus on how best to help students demonstrate competence, potentially eliminating redundant coursework or unnecessary degree requirements.
They can be seen as more effective because they develop methods to validate student learning has occurred and competencies have been achieved, rather than assuming such learning has taken place if a student has taken a certain number of courses. They can be seen as fairer because they recognize learning the student may have acquired outside of a classroom. Learning is what counts, not the time spent in a classroom.
There are important questions still to be worked out. The aforementioned difficulties around federal financial aid is one important challenge the field is working to address. Further, colleges that offer CBE are working together to explore how to define quality standards for programs — a particular challenge because there is not yet a lot of data about how well students learn in these programs compared with more traditional programs, and what kind of students are most likely to be successful in them.
CBE is also built on the concept of competencies, which is still not fully defined in the higher-education world. Further complicating the matter, many employers are also using the term, with definitions that can vary from company to company, and potentially lack of alignment with college-defined competencies.
Despite these questions and challenges, CBE represents a clear movement toward degrees and credentials whose value employers understand better. Delivery models are also leveraging technology to offer a highly flexible, personalized and affordable learning option for working adults and for employers.