AEI Report: More Data Needed Before Expanding Competency-Based Learning

Posted By Derek Johnson on July 14, 2016 at 7:40 am
AEI Report: More Data Needed Before Expanding Competency-Based Learning

As college enrollment rates continue to grow steadily, the composition of higher education is changing. Between 2003 and 2013, students under 25 accounted for the bulk of the growth at higher education institutions. However, it is students over 25 who are expected to fuel the majority of the enrollment boost from 2013-2024.

Older Americans are heading back to school in increasing numbers for many reasons. Some didn’t pursue a college degree when they were younger to go straight into their chosen occupation or prioritized family, but they are now looking for a new career. Others may be established in a profession but want to augment or update their skills or knowledge in order to better navigate the 21st century technology economy.

Older students differ from their younger counterparts in meaningful ways. Many have family and head of household financial obligations, and their learning often takes place outside normal business hours. It is not a lifestyle conducive to taking the full 12- or 15-credit per semester course load often required to finish a degree on time.

Enter Competency Based Exams, a pilot project started in 2013 by the Department of Education. The program was developed to help meet the needs of older college students and incorporate learning that takes place outside the classroom. According to the department’s section on competency-based programs:

“Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities. These strategies include online and blended learning, dual enrollment and early college high schools, project-based and community-based learning, and credit recovery, among others.”

Bring your work to school

While the traditional model of college is strongly associated with increased job prospects after graduation, blind spots remains when it comes to preparing younger students as they transition from the classroom to the working world. During a Ted Ed Club speech in March, high school student Aliezah Hulett listed a raft of practical and interpersonal skills that her generation is largely ignorant about, aren’t taught in school and are vital to the success of every adult professional, from doing your taxes to communication and conflict resolution.

“There’s a sense of responsibility and maturity that come from having a job. When someone puts their head down to achieve their goals by themselves, as an independent adult, their outcome will reflect what they learned in both high school and college,” said Hulett.

This approach is not ideal for older students. Most come directly from the workforce and may retain skills that may not necessarily translate to a traditional academic classroom but are nonetheless valuable in the real world.

Competency-based programs allow professors to grade and assign credit based on demonstrated mastery of a subject, regardless of how much time the student has spent in school. The student’s relevant background experience then informs his or curriculum and determine advancement toward a degree.

A website on competency based exams jointly funded by the U.S. Department of Labor and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation calls this the “ability to incorporate the realities that people master subjects at different rates and bring diverse levels of prior experience and knowledge to that mastery,” while Change Magazine authors Sally Johnstone and Louis Soares decribe it as “build[ing] a bridge between academics and employers, resulting in a better understanding of the knowledge and skills that students will need to succeed in work and in life.”

More data required

Because nontraditional students are becoming a larger part of the college population, experts and policymakers have begun examining ways to collect data on students who use the programs and potentially expand it. The American Enterprise Institute released a report in June 2016 arguing that, for all the promise shown by competency-based programs to cater to this rising demographic, shockingly little is known about who uses them, how much they cost relative to a traditional degree and other foundational data.

“The [competency-based] model has received substantial attention from higher education leaders and policymakers, yet we still cannot answer many basic questions: Who enrolls in CBE programs? How much do they cost? How do their student outcomes compare with other, more traditional programs?” write authors Andrew Kelly and Rooney Columbus.

Kelly and Columbus used a Department of Education database to evaluate 380 competency-based programs and their reported outcomes. What they found was murky; many of these programs used student self-assessments to determine whether competency was achieved, as opposed to more concrete measures.

“Few examined outcomes such as retention, graduation, or job-placement rates. Only a handful looked at CBE in comparison to a counterfactual; just 13 compared CBE outcomes to those from traditional programs,” write Kelly and Rooney.

In addition to the flexibility that competency-based learning programs afford to students with families or full-time jobs, proponents argue that it can also potentially save students thousands of dollars in unneeded “seat time” at classes so long as they can demonstrate that they understand the underlying lessons and material.

“Competency-based education holds tremendous promise. It allows students to earn a degree in less time and even at a lower cost than in a traditional education setting, yet it is difficult for institutions to expand this innovative model under a system that values time over learning,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-NV, in 2014 while advocating for House legislation that would identify and evaluate 30 competency based college programs for cost-savings.

But Kelly and Columbus argue that, while the government has much of this information at its disposal, as of yet no one has actually compiled and calculated the numbers to prove this hypothesis:

“This is a simple enough empirical question: How much do CBE graduates pay, on average, for their degrees relative to comparable students who earn degrees in traditional programs? How much debt do these two groups of students take on?  This information is readily available via administrative data, and a descriptive research project would help inform the conversation.”

A run through the laboratories of democracy

It is not surprising that exams for competency-based learning lack the kind of rigorous data collection and program evaluation that policymakers might want. The idea is still in its relative infancy, and the Department of Education is conducting pilot projects and assigning waivers to states in order to give them the freedom to experiment with different models at the high school and college level. A Rand Corp. evaluation of three competency-based pilots found that while results around student performance varied, there were “challenges in determining how to provide credit for out-of-school activities” and “tension in holding all students to a common definition of proficiency.”

Meanwhile, the industry is slowing setting up the principles and standards around competency-based learning that will allow for easier and more uniform collection of the kind of data that Kelly and Columbus desire. Last year the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions laid out a framework to guide accreditors in defining and approving competency programs.

“The key is to promote this expansion of CBE while also ensuring the quality and integrity of the academic program,” says C-RAC Chairwoman Barbara Brittingham.

Any formal expansion of support for competency-based learning programs will likely have to wait until Congress tackles reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. That process, informally underway for years, is not expected to get a vote by Congress until at least 2017.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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