Competency-Based Education in a Liberal Arts Context

Private colleges and universities can and should do a better job of demonstrating how a liberal arts education prepares students for successful careers. And there’s a case to be made that administrators shouldn’t dismiss new educational models and delivery methods simply because they are non-traditional or whiff of “vocationalism”—to do so would be a rejection of the liberal arts ideals of openness and adaptability that colleges themselves encourage in their students.

Changing demographics, cultural shifts, and the Internet have ushered in a period of uncertainty and disruption in higher education unlike any in recent memory. After decades of healthy growth and relative stability, higher education is facing an identity crisis of sorts: Does its model still make sense in the 21st century? Do colleges equip students for success in the contemporary economy? Is college worth it?

As colleges and universities address these questions and make their case that a college education is, indeed, still relevant and essential, they must also account for the significant ways in which their students are changing. “Traditional” residential students between the ages of 18 and 22 represent a shrinking proportion of the overall student population in the United States. According to a 2013 Wall Street Journal report, only 29 percent of undergraduate students were of traditional college age and attending a full-time residential institution. The profile of college students is becoming increasingly stratified, even within broad demographic groups. A first-generation college student living close to home might benefit from a significantly different educational approach than an international student from Beijing, for example.

Whether it’s a fair characterization or not, higher education has been criticized for imposing upon students a “one size fits all” approach to a college education that has not significantly changed in hundreds of years. For all of the talk about “personalized education” and “customized learning objectives,” the building blocks of a bachelor’s degree are essentially the same at most private colleges—and have been that way for a long time. The norms are a pre-determined number of faculty-led lectures delivered over a set 12- to 16-week period to provide students with a fixed number of credits. Once the required number and mix of credits have been earned (ideally within four years), a degree is conferred.

To be clear, this classic educational model has stood the test of time for good reason. At its best, the faculty-led learning experience equips students with much more than rote knowledge of facts; it exposes students to new ways of thinking about the world, and it instills in them the abilities to communicate, collaborate, and adapt to the challenges they will face in their careers and lives.

Yet there is a growing perception that the lockstep higher education delivery method is outdated in some ways, and no longer fully relevant to the world we live in.

A Lurch Forward?

For better or worse, what students expect to receive from their college education has shifted significantly. While 100 years ago college was viewed by a majority as a place to cultivate young minds and develop contributing citizens, a college education in 2016 is viewed in far less lofty terms. Now students and their families expect a bachelor’s degree to provide a direct pathway to career success—whether through relevant preparation for the workplace or as entry to an advanced degree program.

To facilitate that, among the many technology-fueled trends in higher education to have emerged in recent years is competency-based learning, which is gaining prominence thanks to a push by federal policymakers.

Unlike massive open online courses (MOOCs), competency-based education (CBE) is less about scale and more about a new approach to college learning. MOOCs essentially deliver the traditional college lecture on a massive scale thanks to the reach of the Internet. While the cost of entry is potentially far less, the student experience doesn’t change much—in fact, MOOCs further entrench the staid lecture model, since student-faculty interaction is nearly impossible across thousands of locations and the anonymity of computer screens.

Competency-based education, on the other hand, calls for rethinking the time-based model that sees all students advance toward their degrees at the same pace. Students progress by demonstrating mastery of a knowledge unit or skill—a competency—regardless of how long it takes them.

Most colleges include a competency measurement already, of course, such as requiring students to pass exams or submit final papers that demonstrate their understanding of the course content. Yet at most traditional institutions, all students are required to spend the same amount of time during a semester earning their course credits. What often results is a rigid lecture-based approach that emphasizes time spent rather than learning objectives met.

However, with CBE, according to the Competency-Based Education Network, “progress is measured by students demonstrating through valid, reliably assessed learning objectives that they have acquired the knowledge and skills required to earn degrees or other credentials in a particular academic discipline or field of study, regardless of the amount of time spent.”

“Competency-based education changes the emphasis for students,” explains Michael Horn, co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Christensen Institute. “The system is currently a sorting system. ‘She wasn’t good enough for physics so that’s why she failed.’ In a CBE system, the professor is more of a coach and advocate and spends the time it takes a student to get there. The education becomes much more [about] mastering the material.”

Today’s Models

Competency-based education is not a new concept. Certain vocational programs have long emphasized competencies as an important means toward proving expertise and job-readiness. But shifting student expectations and the power of technology are bringing CBE to the forefront in the traditional college context. The Higher Learning Commission also raised the profile of competency-based endeavors in 2015 by releasing new accreditation guidelines for competency programs. While few liberal arts colleges have embraced CBE into their core curricula, some forward-thinking traditional institutions are experimenting with competency-based courses and degree programs.

Concordia University Wisconsin became the first private institution in the nation to award open digital badges for competencies through its master’s program in educational design and technology. The university rebuilt the program from the ground up by “identifying all of the learning objectives and rewriting them as competencies,” explains Bernard Bull, associate vice president of academics.

“We came up with 75 competencies that were the kinds of things that people were looking for in this field,” says Bull. “Then we built a project-based digital badge for each competency that signals when a student has mastered that particular skill.”

Once earned, these digital badges can then be displayed on a student’s LinkedIn profile so that prospective employers can see not only the advanced degree they’ve earned, but also the competencies they gained along the way through real-world projects. The badges anchor their education to relevant workplace skills and provide students with means to continually improve their expertise and update their résumés.

Westminster College (Utah) has introduced several competency-based online degree programs—including a bachelor of business administration. The programs are built around work-related projects and faculty mentoring, says Richard Chapman, professor of economics.

“In our CBE programs, learners can submit projects and receive feedback on how they could improve their work to demonstrate mastery of competencies. Students can then incorporate the feedback from faculty and rework the project and resubmit,” says Chapman. “This creates a safer learning environment than traditional courses. It is okay for students to fail. They must learn from their failures, but we have found this is a giant advantage for underrepresented groups, especially first-generation college attendees.”

What makes these programs unusual are their close connection to skills that are transferable to the workplace and the individual pacing afforded to each student, explains Chapman: “In our CBE programs, competencies are woven around work-related projects, cases, and issues. When a learner has successfully finished a project and demonstrated mastery of the ‘competency,’ they can move forward to the next project. Therefore, students can self-pace.”

To document the mastery of competencies, new models for transcripts are being developed through a partnership of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and 12 colleges and universities participating in the Comprehensive Student Record Project. One of the project’s extended transcript prototypes is depicted below.


The Liberal Arts Context

The courses at Concordia University Wisconsin and Westminster College are largely representative of competency-based programs being offered at other private institutions. By and large, colleges are dipping their toes into CBE through professional, online, and adult-focused programs. This makes sense, since professional-track programs lend themselves more readily toward measurable hard skills and workplace-ready competencies. For this very reason, traditional colleges have been dismissive of competency-based education as a poor fit and “too vocationally focused” for liberal arts courses in a residential setting.

Yet Debra Humphreys, senior vice president for academic planning and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), wonders if there’s been a mistaken assumption about the goals of students interested in CBE. “Far too many assume that these students are only interested in narrow workforce training and that they aren’t also interested in the world-expanding possibilities that come from higher education. Far too much of the dialogue around CBE doesn’t attend to the broader well-being, emotional needs, or developmental trajectories of students targeted by CBE programs,” she argues.

Then is it possible that competency-based education has a role to play in the traditional liberal arts? Are institutions justified in relegating CBE to online courses intended for non-traditional students? Or are colleges missing potential opportunities to integrate CBE into their traditional course offerings? Do institutions that ignore the competency-based model ultimately risk disruption from organizations that offer faster, more affordable, and more personalized competency-based degrees?

Given the uneven and fluid higher education landscape, the answers to these questions are far from clear. Yet Bull at Concordia Wisconsin believes the liberal arts and CBE are compatible.

“Alongside a traditional education, competency-based education can be a wonderful supplement to a four-year experience,” says Bull. Instead of radically altering course formats, he envisions adding a competency-based layer to already effective undergraduate learning frameworks.

“The faculty would focus on what it does best,” describes Bull. “Someone would work alongside students to translate their learning outcomes into competencies and vocabulary that the workplace will recognize.”

Bull points out that colleges have largely left it up to students to translate their own skills into the workplace after graduation. Convincing prospective employers of their experience and preparation remains one of the great challenges for liberal arts grads. In a competency-based model, colleges could address that by translating liberal arts skillsets into real-world competencies for students and employers.

Horn likewise sees no conflict between traditional liberal arts and a competency-based approach. In fact, he sees an opportunity for traditional private colleges to integrate CBE to improve their educational offerings and further espouse liberal arts ideals.

“CBE has the potential to create very deep learning experiences,” says Horn. “When competencies are understood, there is a very clear sense of the objectives that you’re trying to help students master and a rigorous rubric for determining if students are indeed mastering them. In theory, professors should care very deeply if students are mastering competencies and learning.”

Still, Humphreys remains concerned about CBE’s ability to reproduce the support systems that, for example, first-generation students or younger, less well-prepared students need to succeed. She has observed it is difficult for CBE to reproduce the more comprehensive guidance that takes place in a liberal arts setting and believes “it is essential for advising in CBE to be very intentional about helping students see, document, and reflect on the larger arc of their learning—how each individual competency development is scaffolded and builds up to more integrative, project-based learning opportunities.”

Regardless of how it ultimately takes shape, integrating competency-based initiatives into traditional lecture-based courses requires a certain boldness to rethink and reimagine how we deliver a college education. Innovation in any industry involves a willingness to deconstruct the way things have always been done in pursuit of a better way forward. Implementing CBE in a liberal arts context is no different.

For one, the role of faculty might shift from a “sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side.” For smaller institutions, that is not a huge leap since faculty mentoring and one-on-one interaction with students are already emphasized. But in a competency-based model, classroom time would be spent less on lectures (students could watch video lectures on their own time outside of class), and more on coaching, discussion, and collaboration.

“That would be a big departure for today’s liberal arts colleges,” says Horn. “There would be fewer lectures because the lecture roots you in that time-based system. You’d end up with a much more active learning experience for students.”

Introducing competency-based education into traditional coursework would involve “reverse-engineering” programs the way that Concordia University Wisconsin did, by starting with the desired learning outcomes (competencies) first and designing courses around reaching and frequently measuring those outcomes—while allowing students to master competencies at their own pace. This is a sea change from the way most curriculums have typically been written, in which faculty determine the material they want to cover across the 30 lectures allotted to their course, with most synthesis taking place outside the classroom on the student’s own time.

A Potential Game-Changer

Rather than grapple with the difficult tasks of transformation, many institutions will likely continue to consider CBE as relevant only for a select number of professional programs or online courses. Yet there remains the real possibility that a handful of innovative organizations will embrace and integrate CBE in a way that “changes the game.”

Imagine if a rigorous college education could be delivered in half the time at half the cost with proven learning outcomes that translate directly to the workplace. Or envision an educational landscape 10 years from now in which students move in and out of institutions earning microcredits and badges that enrich their lives and that employers covet and respect. Would these scenarios not pose a threat to the prevailing bachelor’s degree model and to traditional institutions that are unwilling or unable to adapt?

“We cannot ignore what people want or need,” says Bull. “Four-year liberal arts colleges have a vibrant set of ideals, but the time has come to dig deep and figure out what it looks like to live out those ideals in a contemporary landscape. Issuing diplomas is not the main value we provide moving forward. It’s about providing a world-class experience.”

Tumultuous times call for openness to new solutions, innovation, and entrepreneurial thinking—just the attributes that a liberal arts education ideally fosters in students. Liberal arts institutions that embody that same type of flexibility and adaptability may soon find it appropriate to seriously explore the possibility of a competency-based approach to delivering their own educational product.