The Controversy of Competency-Based Education

What is the best way to gauge the viability of competency-based education while maintaining educational standards? And how does all this happen in a rapidly changing learning environment that craves innovation to meet the demands of today’s educational market?

Driving Factors for New Competency-Based Models

It’s no surprise that interest in competency-based educational models is increasing, especially among higher education policymakers. It’s also drawing the attention of a growing number of institutions. As the cost of postsecondary education rises, policy makers and institutions are seeking new ways to break down the barriers of attaining a quality education. Those applicants lucky enough to break through the barriers of time and cost have come out the other side only to find their skills aren’t in demand because of a lackluster job market. Adults already in the workforce with some college but no degree are further sparking the need to accelerate the time it takes to complete a degree.

This has institutions, employers, and policymakers asking how to best prepare students for today’s workplace while ensuring they are actually achieving intended outcomes. One answer to these issues might be to elevate direct assessment courses to the same level as traditional higher-ed courses.

The Federal definition of direct assessment is:

An instructional program that, in lieu of credit hours or clock hours as a measure of student learning, utilizes direct assessment of student learning, or recognizes the direct assessment of student learning by others. The assessment must be consistent with the accreditation of the institution or program utilizing the results of the assessment.
— Source: U.S. Government Printing Office

In other words, student learning is tied more directly to what they need to know when they graduate and seek employment.

Competency-based programs are typically offered online and are based on the demonstrated competencies gained from a variety of sources.

Undergoing Massive Change

Recently the direct assessment model received the blessing of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) for colleges and universities to supply their students with the opportunity to gain credit hours through direct assessment. The DOE stated that institutions “may use direct assessment of student learning, or recognize the direct assessment by others of student learning.” These measurement tools include “projects, papers, examinations, presentations, performances, and portfolios.” As a result, degrees can be based on mastery of the defined competencies, and may or may not be translated into the amount of credits obtained, depending on the categorization of the program and its approval by the DOE.

Since the DOE approved this program, scores of colleges are gearing up to offer new competency-based degrees. There’s a catch: the college or university must meet the DOE guidelines on what a direct assessment program should look like and how the program should function. But there’s also motivation: Once a university or college has a fully accredited approved program (by both the DOE and the school’s accreditor) the students attending the program can receive federal financial aid.

There are also challenges. While direct assessment is the most extensive form of competency-based education, it looks nothing like established college classes. Direct assessment programs feature no traditional courses, grades, deadlines, or credit hour requirements. Perhaps the method’s most revolutionary – and controversial – position is a changed role for faculty. With no lectures or guided pathway through course material, quite literally instructors don’t teach.

Given these sweeping changes, institutions are concerned whether the DOE will stand behind this approach that many see as fundamentally different from what has been successful for so long. In addition, changing the measure of student learning from credit hour to mastery of an assessment is no easy task for an institution. That’s because the credit-hour model touches everything from institutional funding, faculty workload, and student financial aid. To make this type of change requires the institution to change policies, state and federal funding, and student aid rules.

Testing the Waters

A few higher-ed institutions, however, are taking the plunge. College for America, a subsidiary of Southern New Hampshire University, and Capella University were the first to offer direct assessment programs. College of American received approval for a non-credit hour associate’s degree and was the first to design assessments not grounded in course equivalents.

Other institutions also dove in, but then reversed direction. Western Governors University, recognized as the standard course-based education model, was one of the first to provide direct assessment but then later changed their program to use a more course-based model with credit equivalencies.

Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin System have also submitted direct assessment programs to the DOE. Northern Arizona’s program didn’t align with DOE’s definition of direct assessment, however, so they returned to a more competency-based program. The University of Wisconsin has boldly begun enrolling students in its direct-assessment programs without the DOE’s approval. While waiting for approval, University of Wisconsin further opted to fund grants for students who enroll in the direct-assessment program.

Proceeding with Caution

The DOE is also forging ahead. They’ve framed an approval process for direct assessment programs and the associated grant funding. The DOE plans to offer institutions the opportunity to experiment with competency-based education by extending waivers for certain financial-aid rules as part of its “experimental sites” program. This has motivated many universities and colleges to submit applications to participate in these experimental programs.

It is expected that tension will persist about various models of competency-based education. Direct assessment is often perceived as having the potential to address accessibility, affordability, transparency, and improved learning outcomes. The recognition of education as the key to both national competitiveness and individual success – especially in the job market – has fueled a sense of urgency in overcoming financial barriers to postsecondary education. This growing idea has also found favor with politicians, regulators, and pundits, resulting in competency-based education increasingly being embraced as a cure-all for multiple pressing issues in higher education, even though direct assessment has yet to prove its merit.

The greatest challenge for competency-based programs surrounds the transferability of credits earned. For now, institutions are willing to translate direct assessment degrees into credits or course equivalences. However, the DOE needs to come forward quickly and standardize what competency-based education should look like and enforce that standard in universities and colleges. Until the DOE implements and administers these standards, regulators may be unable to uphold any type of standardization related to direct assessment, creating doubt about the viability and the sustainability of competency-based education programs.