This blog post was originally published on the RAND blog. Check out the excerpt below, or click here to read the full post on recent discussions about federal regulations and competency-based programs in higher education.
Exploring New Approaches to Higher Education: The Expansion of Competency-Based Programs
Competency-based higher education—which is built on the idea that degrees should be awarded based on a student’s demonstrated mastery of knowledge, skills, and abilities as opposed to time spent in a classroom, or “seat time”—is a key topic of discussion especially as Congress works to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, the key piece of legislation that dictates federal policy over higher education.
For students, the opportunity to personalize learning and utilize online platforms at their own pace, rather than work through a common syllabus, can hold considerable appeal. Competency-based programs allow students to gain credit for the knowledge, skills, and abilities they have rather than relearning what they already know. The programs also have the potential to increase employability of graduates by focusing on more applied material and ensuring that programs are explicitly linked to employer needs.
An additional reason for recent interest in competency-based programs is the assertion that it can upend student cost models through subscription-based tuition models where students can take as many courses as desired for a fixed price each term as opposed to the traditional method of paying by the credit hour. While this “all you can eat” approach could drive up costs and/or limit completion rates for students who are less able to make fast and steady progress, it offers substantial cost savings to students who move quickly through material.
Although these programs show promise to reduce costs and improve outcomes and efficiency for many students, they also raise many questions and implementation challenges, according to a recent RAND review of such programs in Texas. For example, many institutions have faced significant challenges in integrating these programs into existing administrative structures and institutional cultures. Additionally, institutions must also respond to concerns that the programs may be of lower quality than traditional programs due to their applied nature, limited face-to-face interaction, and modularization. And finally, the personalized, self-paced format of these programs may not be appropriate for all students. Yet many of these concerns can be addressed through careful design, implementation, and evaluation of competency-based programs. Supporters also point out the large opportunity for innovation that many dealing with higher education challenges claim is sorely needed.
The study of Texas competency-based programs has also highlighted several external challenges. For instance, existing federal and state regulations and accreditation processes built on the traditional “seat time” model can create implementation barriers and inadvertently encourage institutions to make competency-based programs look similar to traditional programs. One way this can be done is by linking competencies back to traditional courses and retaining credit hour–based tuition structures. An additional challenge is the changing policy environment.