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In an era of soaring concern over student loan debt, the idea of awarding students credit for what they already know or can learn on their own is taking center stage, dubbed a top education trend of 2014.

By putting the focus on outputs—on what students know and can do—so-called “competence-based” programs increase transparency and do away with rigid credit and classroom time requirements, saving students both time and money—often tens of thousands of dollars on the way to a college degree.

The result: A “tidal wave” of interest in competence-based education. Students across the country can now enter competence programs to earn degrees from associate’s through doctorate at public, private nonprofit and for-profit institutions.

The largest players include for-profit Capella University, with 34,503 students, and nonprofit Western Governors University, with 43,418 students.

But amidst the enthusiasm, critics are sounding alarms. They assert that competence-based education represents a dumbed-down, discounted degree that will do nothing more than keep the have-nots running in place. “If you are from a lower socioeconomic status, you have this new option that appears to cost less than a traditional bachelor’s degree, but it’s not the same product.

I see it as a really diminished higher education experience for less money, and yet disguised as this notion of greater access,” Drexel University professor Amy E. Slaton recently told the New York Times.

As an associate dean at a college that has been offering competence-based bachelor’s degrees for more than 40 years—and someone who has spent substantial time researching and evaluating results—I strongly disagree.

Different does not mean diminished. To the contrary, by any number of measures, competence-based programs have proven that they can support effective learning as well as, and often better than, traditional programs.

While evaluation of competence-based education across institutions remains to be done, individual school results back my conclusion. Let me share just a few examples:

More broadly, research on learning bears out the wisdom of the competence-based approach. Education researchers have found that learning is more likely to be retained and used again when learners engage in metacognition—literally, thinking about thinking.

The National Research’s Council’s How People Learn defines metacognition as precisely what competence programs, in which students self pace, incentivize—a process where students “become more aware of themselves as learners who actively monitor their learning strategies and resources and assess their readiness for particular tests and performances.”

Perhaps most importantly, by lowering costs and increasing flexibility, competence programs increase access for nontraditional students who do not have the luxury or inclination to spend four years living in dorms.

Nationally, African American students earned 10% and Hispanic students earned 9% of all bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2010 according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By contrast, at my competence-based college, half of the 429 BA graduates in 2013 who identified by race were students of color, with 28% African American and 15% Hispanic.

A 2010 CAEL study of 48 institutions showed that programs that allow students to apply learning from life experiences significantly increase the number of students who complete degrees, with African American graduates increasing from 17% to 40% and Hispanic graduates soaring from 6% to 47%.

Of course, numbers tell only part of the story—the real proof is in the students themselves.

Again and again, I see students grow in confidence, revel in the joy of learning, leave jobs to begin careers, and expand their worlds.

“I achieved my goals and broadened my horizons, something I could not have imagined," wrote Stacey, a student who arrived at my college convinced that she was not good at school.  By graduation, she had completed an award-winning senior project and been accepted at her first choice for graduate school.

She concluded, "I am now preparing for the challenges with confidence and a firm belief in my abilities.” And that, as any educator worth her salt will tell you, is what it's all about.

Michelle Navarre Cleary, an associate professor and associate dean at DePaul University’s School for New Learning, is an expert in adult education, in particular strategies for teaching writing to non-traditional students. She is currently a Public Voices Faculty Fellow with the OpEd Project. 

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