Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

It’s Time to go Beyond the Credit Hour

May 20, 2013

At a time when students and families are seeking value in higher education, programs cost too much and too often fail to deliver on their promise of a better, more productive life. This doesn’t surprise me, considering we’re working with a higher education model that hasn’t changed dramatically in hundreds of years: Academic years are divvied up into semesters, which are made up of courses, for which students earn credits. When students have slogged through enough semesters to earn plenty of credits, they are granted a degree or some sort of credential.

Once upon a time, this highly-structured academic system conformed to the rhythms of a student’s life. But that was back when people had to squeeze studies in between the fall harvest and the spring planting. And, frankly, higher education enjoyed the accompanying view that college was a cloistered place for contemplation and higher learning.

But that model starts to break down when nearly three out of four students aren’t enrolled in full-time, four-year degree programs. The rigidness of semesters and courses and credit hours doesn’t work for adults who are juggling jobs, family and other priorities while they also work toward a degree – an elaborate dance that too often ends in students leaving school with no degree, but lots of debt. Many of today’s students aren’t interested in a classic college experience of dorms and all-nighters. Rather, they need college to be “unbundled,” and to be able to integrate it selectively, sometimes a course at a time, into their busy and full lives.

In response, new models are emerging that offer the flexibility needed by students whose education occurs in fits and starts. Competency-based education is arguably the most important of those models, with enormous promise for today’s students. It is an approach to education that measures progress by assessing what students know and can do rather than seat time spent in class. It allows many of today’s students to progress at their own pace and to go deep on material they haven’t mastered, while not having to spend time or tuition on concepts and knowledge they’ve learned elsewhere.

It also allows them to move in and out of school as necessary without having to start over each time. Western Governors University is a leader in this. It awards degrees based on a student’s ability to demonstrate mastery of skills and material regardless of where they learned it or how long it took. And we are seeing competency-based pilot programs in more traditional institutions, including Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin system.

Not only are competency-based programs better for so many of today’s students, but they promise considerable advantages for employers, who, right now, evaluate newly-minted grads primarily on where they went to college and their grade point average. Because competency-based programs rely on regular student assessments of specific skills and abilities, they can provide employers with more detailed information about what prospective workers know and can do.

While competency-based programs would mark a significant change in higher education, it is not wholly foreign idea. Indeed, many of the building blocks for it are already in place thanks to work across the higher education community. Lumina’s Tuning USA project, the European Union’s Bologna process and the American Association of Colleges & Universities’ LEAP initiative have done a great deal of work breaking down degree and credential programs into the essential elements and outcomes that students must master. So we should view competency based programs as an evolution – admittedly an important one – of our ever-changing educational and pedagogical practices.

As promising as these competency-based programs are, there is a great deal more we need to explore – in how we measure students’ skills and knowledge and how that adds up to degrees and credentials, in assessments and of course with quality control. Innovators within the higher education community are embracing that exploration with an unparalleled sense of urgency and enthusiasm – still more testimony to the promise.

Naturally, competency-based programs are not a panacea. We still need to do a better job making sure students are ready for postsecondary programs when they arrive, and we need a more effective process of remediating those that aren’t. We need to provide better and accurate information to students so they can make informed decisions about which path after high school is right for them. And we need to more fully explore how to deliver a personalized learning experience to all students – one that is both productive and affordable.

When all of these pieces are in place, then we’ll have a higher education system that is both providing value to young people while being an engine of social mobility and economic development for the country.
 
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