Students being evaluated for competency-based credit at Lipscomb University in Tennessee
Lipscomb University

At 56, Linda McCampbell discovered she could get the college degree she always wanted.

A Nashville paralegal for 30 years, McCampbell last year attended an eight-hour workshop to judge how her life experience might be cashed in for academic credits at Lipscomb University. The promise was alluring: the possibility of knocking months off a college education McCampbell had long abandoned as out of reach.

It turns out she qualified for an entire academic year’s worth of credits, and at a fraction of what two semesters of tuition would have cost.

“It wiped out my freshman year,” says McCampbell, who earned those credits by proving she could deal with a full inbox of tasks and solve problems with a group. The boost was enough to cure her of the longtime belief a degree was out of reach.

This sort of result that has led hundreds of colleges and universities to develop similar so-called competency-based programs, which let older students get academic credit by demonstrating proficiency in such things as leadership and organization.

That means those students can earn degrees more quickly and at a lower cost — even lower now that the U.S. Department of Education has begun a pilot program under which students at 40 institutions will be able to use federal financial aid to pay for it, which was not previously allowed.

But critics fear that in the rush to compete for students by promising them credits for experience, some colleges and universities will make getting competency-based credits too easy. Accreditors are still scrambling to set up standards for the practice. And a new study by the American Enterprise Institute raises other questions that remain unresolved, including how students will earn credit in this way, how much they will be charged for it and whether they will really save money over the long term.

Competency-based programs “could very easily devolve into diploma mills,” says Amy Laitinen, a former White House and Department of Education advisor who is now deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation and an advocate of the concept. “It could go south very quickly.”

Designers of competency-based programs say they measure whether what people have already learned in life is enough for them to forgo academic courses typically required as prerequisites toward a degree.

Nineteen early adopters of the competency model — including Lipscomb, Southern New Hampshire University, Capella University and the University of Wisconsin — are working together to design standards for such programs in a collaboration called the Competency-Based Education Network, or C-BEN. (C-BEN is supported by the Lumina Foundation, a funder of the Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

But many of the institutions being allowed to use financial aid for competency-based education are not associated with the effort to establish standards.

“My worry is that you’re going to see schools that don’t do the hard work,” says Michael Offerman, an Arizona-based consultant who helps universities and colleges develop competency-based programs. “If you don’t do it right, you could threaten not only your own institution, but also the movement as a whole.”

The nation’s six regional accreditors, whose job it is to ensure the quality of colleges and universities, have also joined together to figure out how to judge competency programs. It hasn’t been easy, says Kevin Sightler, a member of the task force who represents the Georgia-based Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

“There’s a lot of confusion, even among the accreditors,” he says. “Everyone’s just trying to get their hands around it right now. It’s completely different from historical approaches.”

There’s little question accreditors will have their hands full soon. Competency-based programs are cropping up rapidly nationwide, from community colleges and small liberal arts colleges to the largest universities. Nine of the most active institutions alone collectively enroll more than 140,000 undergraduate and 57,000 graduate students in competency programs, according to the American Enterprise Institute report.

At least 200 schools are developing or considering competency-based programs, says Brian Fleming, an analyst with the higher-education consulting firm Eduventures.

“We think it’s only going to get bigger,” he said. “It is quite a Wild West.”

Lipscomb’s program has assessed more than 120 students, including McCampbell, since it started last year. In October, California’s Brandman University launched a fully online, competency-based bachelor’s degree with 44 students.

As colleges and universities see competitors bringing in new students with such programs, they’ll be tempted to cut corners, says Laurie Dodge, a Brandman vice chancellor and vice provost.

“Competency-based education is popular, and everybody wants a piece of it,” Dodge says. “There may be shortcuts or window-dressing.”

At its best, the competency model could help colleges turn out graduates who are prepared for the working world rather than just adept at cramming for tests. It could also bring in students at a time when enrollment is flat or declining, and when higher education is trying to tap into the growing market of students who are older than traditional college age. In the American Enterprise Institute study, 90% of the people who cashed in life experience for credit were 25 and older.

“I think it’s being seen as something that can help institutions sustain themselves,” says Charla Long, Lipscomb’s dean of professional studies. “This might eventually be seen as the new face of higher education.”

Lipscomb’s eight-hour assessment — the one that let McCampbell skip her freshman year — starts by giving students various tasks to complete within 90 minutes. Later, the students participate in leaderless workplace discussions about, for example, hiring policies.

Evaluators want to see students prove their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, Long says — something employers want, and complain that too few traditional college graduates have.

About 1 million people in Tennessee have earned some college credits but no degree, Long says, and competency-based programs could make it easier for them to get one.

For McCampbell, who started looking at schools once her two children graduated from college themselves, the Lipscomb program opened doors that were closed when she was younger.

“I didn’t grow up in money. They even laughed at you if you brought up college,” says McCampbell, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in integrated studies. “Something was always missing.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education

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