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Meeting challenges with competency-based education
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It is time to fundamentally change the higher education model. Three dimensions dominate the discussion on the future of higher education: access, academic quality and cost. Everyone agrees with expanding access to education. Defining quality however is more complicated.

In higher education, quality has traditionally been measured through inputs such as the quality of admitted students, distinguished faculty and campuses with impressive libraries and laboratories. But this approach mistakes a means for an end, diverting attention away from the purposeful end of student learning.

This is similar to saying the purpose of Ford Motors is to run assembly lines or that the purpose of health care is to fill hospital beds.

Over the past several decades, tuition has increased faster than inflation, family incomes and even health care pricing. This trend is making higher education unaffordable, further creating barriers to access.

Unfortunately, in the current educational paradigm, any effort to reduce cost and/or increase productivity is often perceived as a threat to quality. When quality is defined by inputs and resources, efforts to control these costs are likely to fail.

As a new model and alternative approach, competency-based education (CBE) emphasizes learning or competency-mastery as the ends, where the end result determines the starting point. Competencies are pre-defined, descriptive and outcomes-oriented, describing what the student must be able to do to master the competency.

Measuring learning through competency mastery is a significant departure from how learning is traditionally measured in higher education. Under the current model, the credit hour and seat time link the awarding of academic credit to hours of contact between professors and students. The credit hour has become the measurement for how much learning students have achieved.

But the credit-hour and seat time standard does not measure learning. A study conducted by Amy Laitinen of the New America Foundation, "Cracking the Credit Hour," concludes that credit hours were never intended to measure learning, but because they are easy to measure and understand, they have become the basic building blocks of higher education for scheduling classes, determining faculty loads and meeting graduation requirements.

The credit-hour-and-seat-time standard is antiquated and irrelevant to the realities of today's students and how they learn. Many colleges routinely reject credits earned at other institutions, seat time often focuses on an increasingly rare student who attends full-time and lives on campus, and only 14 percent of undergraduate students fit this model.

Students earn credit for little more than sitting in class while millions of professionals with college-level learning and skills have no way to earn credit for their learning. Many employers complain graduates are not adequately prepared with basic skills requisite for success in the workplace.

At a time when America's system of higher education is at risk, and the issues of access, academic quality, and cost are at the forefront, it is time to unleash new opportunities for innovation by developing standards and measurements of student learning based on outcomes rather than inputs, the achievements of graduates instead of the profile of entering students.

President Obama, in a recent speech, called for "more colleges to embrace innovative new ways to prepare our students for a 21st century economy and maintain a high level of quality without breaking the bank." Prior to this call, Westminster College already offered several competency-based programs and is continuing to develop others that focus on student learning, not seat time; increase employer and public confidence in the claims we make for student learning by providing greater transparency and data around student outcomes and achievement; reduce the time and cost of earning a degree; and develop principles of best practice that set high standards for responsible innovation.

Dr. James "Cid" Seidelman is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Westminster College and a former commissioner and chair for the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

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