A year ago, Bob Jones University hired GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), a Virginia firm, to investigate whether the university had properly handled any abuse allegations it received over the years. With GRACE wrapping up its investigation and preparing to write its report, the university fired the firm, The Greenville News reported. A university statement said that "we grew concerned about how GRACE was pursuing our objectives.” A statement from GRACE said that organization was taken by surprise and was concerned about the impact of its firing on those who came forward during the investigation. “We grieve with those whose hopes will be crushed should this independent process remain incomplete," said the GRACE statement.
Recently The Atlantic predicted that one of the top five trends impacting higher education will be a push toward credit given for experience, proficiency and documented “competency.” The recent results of Inside Higher Ed’s survey of chief academic officers also show openness to competency-based outcomes.
For many, myself included, this simply sounds like a series of placement tests and seems like a pretty shallow approach to a college education and degree. However, as vice president of enrollment and chief marketing officer for a residential college, I can’t ignore the appeal of the “validation” of learning this trend suggests.
In fact, I find myself thinking more and more about how residential colleges, with their distinct missions, might respond to the potential threat this trend represents. I find myself hoping we can prove the residential environment results in valuable learning and life experiences beyond getting along with a roommate, asking someone on a date, learning how to tap a keg and configuring a renegade wireless network.
We can do more. Perhaps the idea of competency-based education should inspire us to think differently about how the learning environment of the residential experience is superior. Perhaps there are competencies associated with a residential college we’ve not done an adequate job of documenting?
This will not be easy for most of us. Our natural instinct to “wait and see how good our students turn out” to justify why students should live and learn on campus won’t work this time, as we face a skeptical public and witness more and more college presidents, administrators and boards reconsidering the value of online education. With some intentionality, we can do a much better job of proving why learning in a residential setting is superior.
We need to ask ourselves: Why is the residential campus experience of utmost importance to a contemporary undergraduate education? We must identify the sorts of learning that can only occur in such a setting, and validate, or better identify, the learning competencies that occur outside the classroom on a residential campus.
This will be difficult in an environment defined by shrinking resources, when many resort to thinking about eliminating activities considered not central to the core mission. The instinct is to cut, de-emphasize or keep separate and second. We see this time and time again in any setting that faces difficult choices about resources. But investment, integration and intentionality create a better path forward.
Can liberal arts colleges resist the urge to cut, and rethink how activities in the residential environment are central to the core mission? Can these colleges develop meaningful ways of measuring the value and impact of such activities and how they result in competencies that add value and worth? Can residential liberal arts colleges develop a “currency” that demonstrates they value out-of-classroom learning comparably to in-classroom learning? I hope so.
While many colleges would benefit from integrating out-of-classroom learning, residential liberal arts colleges must do so because of the infrastructure around which our colleges have been built -- residence and dining halls, student activity centers, athletic venues and performance halls. We need to prove these are not just modern amenities, but central to superior learning.
To validate this learning experience, residential liberal arts colleges will need to rethink historic barriers. Learning that occurs outside the classroom can no longer be viewed as “separate and second.”
Extra-curricular and co-curricular transcripts that fully document competencies and outcomes essential to success beyond college must evolve to be fully integrated with the academic program, and valued both internally and externally.
First, residential liberal arts colleges must clearly define the learning outcomes and expectations. This is frequently a faculty-driven exercise. Understanding the knowledge gained from an activity provides a framework around which out-of-classroom learning can be developed. This framework will allow for alignment of purpose and some measure of control about how central an out-of-classroom activity is to the core mission and which competencies are satisfied as a result.
Georgetown University was recently recognized for their excellent programming in the area of preparing student-athletes for leadership. Recognition of activities that successfully align with and even expand learning is critical for the public to be convinced that such activities are core to a high-quality education.
Next, residential liberal arts colleges must create a “currency” that meaningfully recognizes those activities that advance a student’s education, e.g., elective academic credit, a credit-bearing on-campus internship, or certificate for activities that demonstrate substantive interest and professional and personal development.
Student activities might be reorganized into mission-focused areas that provide students with experience not always fully represented in the academic program, but with relevance to a successful application for employment or graduate school.
Some examples might be: Leadership, Teamwork, Civic Engagement, Social Justice, Service Learning, Entrepreneurship and Business Development, Intercultural Understanding, Interfaith and Spiritual Development, Public Relations and Event Planning, and Sustainability. This approach is similar to competency-based certification, but broader than proof that a student can read a balance sheet or do a 10-minute presentation.
Finally, liberal arts colleges should engage in a broader conversation about why they are residential, without saying it’s because they’ve been that way for 150 years. Too many colleges assume students already understand. Such a learning environment can positively shape a student’s character and skillset, and result in sweeter success, but a residential community does not always acknowledge or articulate this success.
With competency-based education in the spotlight, residential colleges have an opportunity to renew a focus on the benefits to students who not only eat and sleep, but also meet colleagues, connect with mentors, challenge themselves in new ways, and develop 21st-century skills and competencies on campus.
If we do not champion and clearly identify the benefits to our students, we are vulnerable to the advocates of no-frills bachelor’s degrees, willy-nilly life experience for credit, online learning, and the commodifiers among us who believe the value of the college experience is test- and content-driven, rather than experiential and residential in nature.
W. Kent Barnds is executive vice president and vice president of enrollment, communication and planning at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Ill.
While there is heated debate over how best to fix America’s higher education system, everyone agrees on the need for meaningful reform. It’s difficult to argue against reform in the face of college attainment rates that are stalled at just under 40 percent and the growing number of graduates left wondering whether they will ever find careers that allow them to pay off their mounting debts.
Any policy debate should start with a clear picture of how the dollars are being spent and whether that money is achieving the desired outcomes. Unfortunately, a lack of accurate data makes it impossible to answer many of the most basic questions for students, families and policy makers who are investing significant time and money in higher education.
During the recent State of the Union address, President Obama talked about shaking up the system of higher education to give parents more information, and colleges more incentives to offer better value. Though he provided little detail, this most certainly referred to the broad vision for higher education reform he outlined over the summer centered around a new a rating system for colleges and universities that would eventually be used to influence spending decisions on federal student financial aid.
However, the President’s proposal rests on a data system that is imperfect, at best. As former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said of the President’s plan, “we need to start with a rich and credible data system before we leap into some sort of artificial ranking system that, frankly, would have all kinds of unintended consequences.”
The American Council on Education, which represents the presidents of more than 1,800 accredited, degree-granting institutions, including two- and four-year colleges, private and public universities, and nonprofit and for-profit entities, agrees on the need for better data as well.
A senior staff member at ACE has been quoted to say that “if the federal government develops a high-stakes ratings system, they have an obligation to have very accurate data,” and that he was “surprised that anyone would think it controversial that having such data is a prerequisite.”
In order to bridge the data gap, we introduced the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which would make the complete range of comparative data on colleges and universities easily accessible to the public online and free of charge by linking student-level academic data with employment and earnings data.
For the first time, students, and policy makers, would be able to accurately compare -- down to the institution and specific program of study -- graduation and transfer rates, frequency with which graduates go on to pursue higher levels of education, student debt and post-graduation earnings and employment outcomes. Such a linkage is the best feasible way to create this data-rich environment.
None of these metrics is currently available to those seeking to evaluate a school or program, though plenty of misleading data are out there.
For example, Marylhurst University, a small liberal arts school in Oregon, was assessed with a 0 percent graduation rate by the U.S. Department of Education. This is because the department's current metrics account only for first-time, full-time students, and Marylhurst serves nontraditional students who are part time or have returned to school later in life. Schools like this that serve nontraditional students -- who now make up the majority of all students -- don’t get credit for their success, at least not according to current federal evaluations.
With so many in the higher education community bemoaning the lack of quality data, and clear solutions forward on how to attain better data, why hasn’t it happened?
A major part of the answer: institutional self-interest. Every school in the country has widely disparate performance outcomes depending on the category, and many college presidents are in no hurry to make their less-than-appealing outcome data available for public scrutiny.
There’s a fear that students and families will vote with their pocketbooks and choose different schools that better meet their needs. The abundance of inaccurate and incomplete data provides institutional leaders with a line of defense: so long as such data are the norm upon which they are ranked and rated, they can defend themselves on the basis of flawed methodology.
Not all schools fear the implications of better quality data; in fact, many schools crave these data and want them made public. They know they’ll stack up well against their competition.
Moreover, many schools realize that getting better data is critical to helping identify what’s working and what’s not for their students in order to build stronger programs. Nevertheless, some of the “Big Six” higher education associations still cling to the status quo and represent a key challenge to realizing these commonsense reforms.
It is long past time for these important actors to look away from their self-interest and toward what’s in America’s collective interest -- a future where higher education produces better outcomes for students and the economy -- by supporting the Know Before You Go Act.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden is an Oregon Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is a Florida Republican.
A think tank's relatively crude analysis of how colleges might fare under a system that rated them on access, affordability and student success finds few institutions scoring high marks on all three, as it chooses to define them. The report by the American Enterprise Institute's Center on Higher Education Reform -- trying to anticipate how an Obama administration plan to rate colleges might play out -- examines the performance of 1,700 four-year colleges on three metrics: the proportion of their undergraduates who are eligible for Pell Grants for needy students, the six-year graduation rate of their students, and their net price -- all of which it concedes are imperfect, if not seriously flawed, measures.
It then plots the institutions on a scatter chart (see an interactive version here), and notes that just 19 colleges score at what it deems an appropriate level on all three measures: graduation rate above 50 percent, net price under $10,000, and Pell Grant percentage of at least 25 percent.
With its simple formula and and unimpressive results, the report may affirm the worst fears of some critics of the Obama plan. But they are likely to agree with the authors' points about the warnings about some of the pitfalls facing the designers of the new system and at least some elements of the report's conclusion:
"In thinking through these issues, the president and his advisers must acknowledge that a poorly designed accountability system will likely do more harm than good, providing critics with the ammunition they need to roll back future efforts to hold colleges accountable. Designers would be wise to learn from the past and anticipate some of these potential pitfalls ahead of time. We still don’t know exactly what the ratings will measure and how the policy will work, but the data discussed here show just how much progress we have to make in order to create the high-quality, affordable postsecondary opportunities that Americans need."
Submitted by Paul Fain on February 5, 2014 - 3:00am
A group of 50 organizations has written to officials at the White House and U.S. Department of Education to "urge the administration to issue promptly a stronger, more effective" set of gainful employment regulations. The group includes higher-education associations, faculty unions, consumer advocates and veterans organizations.
In December a panel of department-appointed negotiators failed to reach consensus on the proposed rules, which would affect vocational programs at for-profit institutions and community colleges. The department is expected to issue its final draft standards in coming months. A period of public comment will follow their release.
Submitted by Paul Fain on January 31, 2014 - 3:00am
The federal government this week announced the launch of a new online complaint system for college students who are veterans or active-duty members of the U.S. military. The Education Department and Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, are participating in the interagency effort to protect students and Post-9/11 GI Bill investments. The complaint system will be a way for students report negative experiences with colleges and universities. Veterans groups called the announcement a "game changer," according to Stars and Stripes.
Matt Reed’s recent column on experimental sites and competency-based education (CBE) offers just the kind of thoughtful analysis we’ve come to expect of his columns. He raises important questions about the role of faculty, the efficacy of approaches that include less instructional interaction, the viability of pay-for-performance aid models, and more. The answers to those questions today? We don’t know. And that’s why we need to support the Department of Education’s experimental sites proposal, to create safe places in which to explore the kind of thoughtful and constructive questions that Matt poses.
Last year saw the dizzying ascendency of the massive open online course, driven by some combination of their blue chip provenance, their creators’ triumphant claims, and the smitten embrace of popular media outlets (especially TheNew York Times).
To the satisfaction and relief of some, MOOCs have come back to earth. Still in search of a purpose (the job they are “hired to do,” to use a Clay Christensen phrase), a business model, and an ideal user scenario, MOOCs are entering a more useful and realistic phase of their development. A lot of smart, mission-driven people are working on MOOC 3.0 (everyone forgets about MOOC 1.0 that came before Coursera and edX put MOOCs on the map) and we’ll see if MOOCs are 21st-century content, a platform innovation, or a powerful new disruptive presence in the educational landscape.
Competency-based education is the hot new innovation, at least in its latest incarnation, largely untethered to the structure of courses and credits, the basic building blocks of curriculums and thus learning. In truth, CBE has been around for decades and pioneered by accredited nonprofits like Excelsior, Charter Oaks, and Western Governors University. They have been joined by a growing number of new providers including the University of Wisconsin System, Northern Arizona University, Brandman University, Capella University, Lipscomb University, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, and my own Southern New Hampshire University. Another 30 or more institutions are working on their own CBE offerings.
The Department of Education is exercising its authority to create experimental sites and has invited proposals for administering federal financial aid funds in new ways that support CBE models, and the White House is calling for more innovation and putting its weight behind CBE. The leading higher education associations – including EDUCAUSE, CAEL, AAC&U, and ACE – are joining in and announcing new initiatives, webinars, and meetings.
Accreditors are releasing new guidelines for CBE programs and the administration continues to pressure them by raising the possibility of new validation systems better suited to support innovative new delivery models. Think tanks and foundations have added their intellectual and financial backing to the effort. The hope, one I share, is that CBE can deliver on the holy triad of quality, cost (access), and completion.
This is a very different set of circumstances than those that have characterized the MOOC movement. CBE has an actual track record of success in its earlier iterations, is being embraced by powerful stakeholders, is being developed by institutions with deep understanding of the students they seek to serve, and is being tied into the established financial system of funding.
More importantly, CBE offers a fundamental change at the core of our higher education “system”: making learning non-negotiable and the claims for learning clear while making time variable. This is a profound change and stands to reverse the long slow erosion of quality in higher education. It is so fundamental a change that we hardly yet know all its implications for our world. For example:
If the claims we make for student learning really are non-negotiable, we will likely see a drop in completion rates, at least for some length of time;
We will have a lot of work to do around assessment, still difficult terrain in higher education;
The Department of Education, entrusted to protect billions of taxpayer dollars, will need reassurance that we have in place measures that guard against fraud;
If competencies are a new “currency” replacing credit hours, we will need to work out the “exchange rates” if we are to have a system that does not replicate the waste and inefficiencies of the current credit hour and transfer system.
Faculty roles are likely to be redefined, at least in some models, and a profession long in transition, and some would say under siege, will be further impacted;
Student information and learning management systems are not designed for these new models, yet form the administrative backbone that supports everything from registration to transcripts to billing to financial aid to... well, almost everything we do.
Accreditation standards, even new ones, will be tested and will have to evolve to reflect the lessons we learn over time.
In other words, if CBE is finally a movement, it is like many new movements still in search of the basics. It lacks a taxonomy, an agreed-upon nomenclature, the aforementioned exchange rate, a widely accepted form of documentation (what is the right form of CBE transcript?), the supporting systems, and experience with a wide variety of students.
This is why the Department of Education’s proposed experimental sites are so important. The key word here is experiment. Institutions need safe spaces in which to try new things, new rules by which to operate, the ability to rethink fundamental assumptions about how we deliver learning and support students, trying new models for costing and paying, and tolerance for mistakes. If we are not making mistakes, it isn’t really innovation that’s going on.
We need a range of approaches to see what works best for what students in what settings. In return, institutions engaged in the work have to do their part. That includes collecting and providing data with a level of transparency that our industry has historically resisted (higher education is a culture that innately resists accountability outside of student grades), putting aside underlying competitive impulses to share what we learn, and finding ways to support students and quickly address the mistakes we must inevitably make (remembering that we never “play” with student welfare).
Experimental sites are important for what they allow, but also for what they (should) fend off. We should beware a premature setting of standards or guidelines. We should beware a premature overturn of the credit hour, flawed as it is, before we have worked out its substitute (or more likely, complementary system). We should beware an opening of the gates like the one that attended online learning, when unscrupulous players entered the market and abused the system for enormous gains at enormous costs for students and the federal government.
In other words, we need just the kind of good questions that Matt Reed poses in his recent column. We need leading thinkers like CAEL and AAC&U to help us think through the big questions before us. We need EDUCAUSE to help us spec out new systems and technologies. And we need to try various models, collect data, and work through the significant questions still in front of us so we can better inform policy-making and the reauthorization discussion now getting under way.
Traditional higher education is not going away any time soon, but CBE has the potential to both provide new affordable, high-quality pathways to students and to challenge our incumbent delivery models to better identify the claims they make for learning and how they know. Those demands, whatever CBE turns out to be, are not going away either and CBE can function like the industry’s R&D lab. The proposed experimental sites align with that very useful role and deserve our collective support.
Paul LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University.