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Some call for educational innovation. Others make it happen.

No educational innovators, I suspect, have had a greater impact than Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University or Scott Pulsipher of Western Governors University. With over 135,000 students apiece, their institutions dominate online learning.

If you want to know why, you might want to read LeBlanc’s 2021 manifesto, Students First: Equity, Access, and Opportunity in Higher Education.

The book contains endorsements any author would die for:

From Arne Duncan, a former U.S. secretary of education: “A must-read for anyone interested in making higher education again work for everyone, not just the privileged.”

Ted Mitchell, the president of American Council on Education and former under secretary of education, calls LeBlanc “a national treasure” and writes, “If you read only one book about American higher education, read this one.”

Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, describes LeBlanc as “the leading innovator in American higher education today.”

Why, you might well ask, do these luminaries and a host of others, including U.S. senator Michael Bennet, past Teachers College president Arthur Levine, MIT president L. Rafael Reif and former New Hampshire governor and now senator Maggie Hassan, lavish such copious praise on a book with just 168 pages of relatively large-type text?

Because LeBlanc offers a relatively low-cost formula for extending something like a college education to those groups of Americans that traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities serve poorly: working adults, family caregivers, military veterans, college dropouts, recent immigrants and those from low-income backgrounds who don’t have the time or money to attend a residential campus.

The words that dot the book’s blurbs—“practical,” “pragmatic,” “realistic” and “sensible”—reflect an Obama-era liberal perspective that seeks “tested and proven” remedies to today’s problems of social justice, economic mobility and a tranquil civil society based not on “glittering promises” but on “hard-won experience.”

Today, Obama-era liberalism is under attack from the right and the left. Many find it too tame, too incremental, too modest. But it certainly deserves respect, especially as it applies to education. It holds out the prospect of defining a middle ground between those who fear the loss of rigor, accountability and high standards and those who correctly believe that the current system is insufficiently attentive to bias, inequity and the needs of those many Americans who are prevented by time constraints and costs from the gateways to social mobility.

It’s easy, all too easy, to criticize the educational approach that LeBlanc favors—asynchronous, self-paced, competency-based online learning—as too narrow, insufficiently interactive and overly vocational. But the alternatives—short-term job training programs and two- and four-year college models poorly adapted to the lives and needs of those who must juggle an education with other demands on their time—haven’t demonstrated much success with the populations that Southern New Hampshire and Western Governors target.

The fact is that many nontraditional students need an affordable, realistic and, yes, flexible and accelerated path to a secure, well-paying job.

Still, the solution that LeBlanc favors bears a striking and unsettling resemblance to the discredited educational model championed by the for-profit universities.

What, then, is LeBlanc’s argument in a nutshell? That the most urgent task facing higher education is to expand opportunity for those Americans who can’t afford to attend a residential campus for four or more years. As he observes, despite a quarter century of effort, degree completion for those in the lowest income quartile has barely budged, even as graduation rates increased for those in the other three quartiles.

Today’s system of higher education, he argues, is ill equipped to serve the most rapidly growing student populations: those who come from low-income backgrounds and who received uneven preparation in high school; those who attend college part-time, swirl across multiple institutions, drop in and out of college, and juggle their studies with work and family responsibilities.

As an alternative, he champions a competency-based approach that replaces an emphasis on credit hours and grades with demonstrated mastery of essential knowledge and skills. Such an approach, he explains, has a number of virtues:

  • It allows students to move in and out of college and across institutions without loss of credits.
  • It recognizes learning that takes place outside the classroom, for example, in the military or the workforce.
  • It supports the accumulation of nondegree certificates and certifications that can be stacked into degrees.
  • It substitutes verified competencies for grades; a student either does or does not demonstrate competence.

A competency-based approach gives time-starved students greater flexibility because it does not have to be anchored in a rigid term schedule or a physical campus.

A competency-based approach also promises to transform accreditation. Instead of focusing on inputs—such as the size of an institution’s endowment, the percentage of faculty with Ph.D.s or the student-faculty ratio—accreditors would be encouraged to attend to outcomes, including the jobs graduates get and their postgraduation earnings.

As LeBlanc quite rightly observes, the current system contains “perverse incentives and skewed priorities.” Instead of concentrating on access, affordability, equity, degree attainment and postgraduation employment outcomes, institutions tend to emphasize rankings, status and growth. This helps explain the “inordinate focus on intercollegiate athletics,” a facilities “arms race,” a shift from need-based financial aid to merit aid and an increasing emphasis on research at the expense of teaching.

To better serve nontraditional students, institutions need to place a greater emphasis on affordability, flexibility, convenience and applied learning.

LeBlanc’s book does not call for an abrupt or wholesale shift toward a competency-based approach. He merely asks that the federal government support a variety of demonstration projects. But he does argue that a healthy learning ecosystem, much like a healthy natural environment, requires diversity and variety, and that expanded access to competency-based programs would give many adults a path to a life-changing education.

A competency-based approach is not without criticisms. In practice, competency-based programs tend to reinforce the stratification of the higher education landscape. These programs generally channel students from lower-income backgrounds into a narrow range of vocational offerings. Even more disturbing, as Robert Shireman has argued, competency-based education’s outcomes focus, coupled with its implicit goal of accelerating time to completion, may well have the effect of eliminating much of what makes a college education valuable, including intensive interaction with Ph.D.s and peers.

Competency-based programs are difficult to implement. For one thing, they require faculty to identify a particular program or course’s learning objectives at a granular or atomic level. Then the faculty need to design lessons and activities to bring students to competency and assessments that can evaluate whether or not they have attained mastery of the appropriate processes, procedures and skills.

An even bigger challenge than program design and development lies in overcoming the legal and policy obstacles to adopting an approach that doesn’t rest on credit hours. For example, federal financial aid policies would need to be recast to ensure that bad actors do not exploit competency-based approaches.

My own view is that conventional colleges and universities have a lot to learn from competency-based education. Indeed, I believe that all programs, whether credit hour or competency based, should:

  1. Specify what they expect students to know and to be able to do upon graduation.
  2. Be able to explain how they know whether students have achieved those competencies.
  3. Consider adopting performance- and project-based assessments that would require students to demonstrate their mastery of essential knowledge, skills and competencies. These kinds of assessments have certain advantages: they can help instructors monitor engagement, motivation, persistence and grit in ways that course grades do not and are not as vulnerable to cheating as many standard assessments.
  4. Make it possible for students to earn nondegree credentials that represent a set of skills or competencies valuable in the job market.

Competency-based education is certainly not a panacea. It can be subject to abuse, especially if the standards of assessment are too lax. But it does redirect our attention toward those students with the greatest needs and provides an approach that can help bring time-stressed students to a brighter future.

At the end of his book, LeBlanc writes, “If we are to fix a broken America, we cannot afford to squander the talent and intelligence that is abundant in our poorest communities, our rural towns and underserved urban neighborhoods.” I agree.

We need to create as many pathways as possible to economic opportunity, and those programs offered by SNHU and WGU do open doors that for many low-income students that would otherwise be closed.

But let’s not forget the words attributed to Euclid: “There is no royal road to geometry.” The best education we can offer is not the fastest nor the cheapest. It’s an education that involves frequent, substantive interaction with classmates and a scholar. It also provides access to a broad curriculum and to laboratories, libraries, studios, performance venues and extracurriculars. That kind of education does not come cheaply. But if we truly believe in equity, we as a society need to pay the price.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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