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Competency-based education threatens to further stratify higher education (essay)

Among the calls for university reform currently in circulation, competency-based education appears to be the one, at least at the moment, that has gained a bit of traction.

This is due largely to a funding push by the Lumina and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations, advocacy by groups such as the American Association of Colleges & Universities that have promoted a particular version of CBE, and a somewhat hesitant thumbs-up from the U.S. Department of Education, which has recently put in place a program to encourage experiments with competency-based approaches and other forms of experimentation in its Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) program.

In the presidential campaign, CBE has also gained some limited attention for being one of the central planks of Marco Rubio’s plan to transform higher education.

Resurrected from the archive of failed education experiments, CBE has recently undergone a conceptual makeover to become the poster child for various reform-minded groups seeking to disrupt higher education. Some see it as a way to provide a “more relevant 21st-century general education curriculum” (i.e., to turn universities into soft-skill vocational programs, aka Jebification).

Others want to use CBE as a means to “personalize learning” (i.e., to place all students in front of a screen, aka Zuckerberging). While still others see it as a way to “increase time to degree completion” (i.e., to get students in and out as quickly and cheaply as possible, aka Gatesification or Merisotising).

In some higher education settings, CBE has led to the creation of entirely new degree programs, primarily at online universities such as Capella, Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire’s College for America. In other, more brick-and-mortar locales, it has served as a means to restructure general education, such as found in institutions that are part of the AAC&U’s General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) project.

However, in the rush to emphasize marketable skills over a deeper liberal knowledge content, proponents of CBE in all forms are forcing students (particularly the underserved in lower-tier institutions, whom they claim to be helping) into a “knowledge-less” version of liberal learning in order to “hurry things along” and not get in the way of their job training.

Despite the rhetoric of “serving the underserved” and “closing the skills gap,” they are responsible for generating new hierarchies between those who receive a cheap, fast food-style or “good enough” education from those who receive a quality one. They are forging new barriers and strata in an already highly stratified higher education system, not removing them as they often claim.

CBE stands in marked contrast to a past emphasis on quality, across-the-board liberal learning to be acquired regardless of the type of student or institution that was at the heart of general liberal education. This was partly what a Dewey-style social democratic vision of liberal arts education was supposed to be about -- general knowledge available to and shared by all -- a kindergarten for adults.

CBE essentially gives up on this dream of democratizing knowledge and promotes a division between those who need a thorough, content-centered liberal education and those who only need a light, fast and vocation-friendly version. It suggests that the big questions, or what the British sociologist Basil Bernstein referred to as powerful or sacred knowledge, where the unimaginable becomes imagined, is not really relevant for most middle- and working-class students who attend community colleges and regional state universities where most of the CBE experiments are being played out.

These students will not need to concern themselves with the bigger questions of theoria -- those can be left up to those with more elite training who will occupy the corridors of power, making laws and running things, but can instead stick to the mundane knowledge and the basics of everyday praxis happening in their assigned cubicles.

In this new model, students in more elite institutions will go on receiving broad liberal training and having access to powerful knowledge as a core part of their university experience, while those at lower-tier public institutions will be loaded up with watered-down, box-checking skills and vague competencies like “critical thinking” or “intercultural understanding” to be provided by standardized, online platforms.

In the market-centered spirit of our times, the move to CBE is presented as simply a matter of the new economic realities of higher education in the age of austerity and state budget constraints, or as a matter of “consumer choice” where wily student consumers and their parents comparison shop at the knowledge mall and select the educational experience that provides “more bang for the buck.”

However, on closer inspection the move to CBE is much more politically scripted than mandated by the inevitability of the economics of higher education. It is, in short, an economically biased political experiment of epic proportions. It creates, as Guy Standing describes it, an education system that is “restructured to stream youth into the flexible labor system, based on a privileged elite, a small technical working class and a growing precariat.”

CBE as a policy only makes sense if we place it in the larger ongoing political project of public realm minimization. Here the activities of public institutions and publicly funded services are reduced to a bare-bones, absolute minimal level of functioning in order to “create efficiencies” and induce “taxpayer savings.”

When this happens public services, such as schools, some hospitals and public transportation, and even the public domain itself, become chronically underfunded and prone to dramatic and often willy-nilly cuts. This minimization generates uncertainty, competition and conflict within the organization servicing the public and produces the inability to provide adequate or even second-rate services.

This often magnifies calls for public sector reforms, such as more businesslike models of new public management, privatization and increased auditing and accountability. As this process continues onward, budget cycle after budget cycle, services may become so reduced that the system either slows to a crawl or breaks down entirely (think of the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Flint, Mich., water supply). In turn those who are serviced by these organizations develop an extreme cynicism and even revulsion toward public services. When politically inflamed, as with Scott Walker in Wisconsin, this cynicism stokes antiunion and antiprofessional sentiments, where public sector unions are blamed for having too much guild-like power and draining away public resources.

What this all means is the CBE is not just a statement about the future of a certain segment of American higher education but one about what opportunities should be there for those who partake of public services. Are these services to be on par with those in the private sector in the social democratic spirit, or are they to be cheap, reduced-rate imitations that can only be avoided by those with the right purchasing power?

Steven C. Ward is professor of sociology at Western Connecticut State University and author of Neoliberalism and the Global Restructuring of Knowledge and Education (Routledge).

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U of All People's campus tour (essay)

Welcome to the U of All People campus tour, which should be super-awesome. Anyway, thanks for showing up, as my American history prof last year used to say.

My name is Loftis Wei, but you can just call me Loft. I’m a junior majoring in sociology, at least this semester, and I was told this job would look good on my résumé. Ready for the spiel? Cool.

We’re starting here at Bovine Hall, which is now the admissions building. Historically -- not that U of All People has much history, I mean, not compared to a real school -- but back in the 1930s, the building was a slaughterhouse, and you can still see bloodstains on some of the floorboards. They turned the killing floor into the school’s first seminar room. That’s why the school was once nicknamed Moo U.

Anyway, if you’re looking for leafy green quads and Gothic architecture, you’ve come to the wrong place, but if you’re into concrete and slit windows, take a look at Dayzin Dorm on the right, which sort of looks like a maximum security prison if you see it from the wrong angle -- not that anyone ever wants to leave. We’ve got wifi in the bathrooms and vending machines on every floor. One even sells toilet paper.

Over here is Kent Reade Library, which -- let me check my notes -- at one time, in the 1980s, had over 200,000 books. But books take up a lot of space, y’know, so they, um, deaccessioned a lot of them and installed new research facilities. Over 50 internet terminals in these alcoves. Printers if you can get one that’s working. The espresso bar is pretty awesome. The books are over there, I think.

The building that looks like a smashed spaceship is the Bai O. Kam Science Wing. What? No, we’re not a research university, not really, but we’ve still got some of that going on. You hear about it, y’know?

Check my notes... some weird plastic was accidentally discovered here in 1956 by Professor Paul E. Murr, but they managed to detox the whole lab and the surrounding area. That gray gunk -- don’t touch it -- is what’s left, and it’s now a nature preserve or something. Anyway, it’s not so much research here, like I said. We’re into teaching. A lot of the professors here have been here, like, forever, so you know they really love this place. I overheard someone in the history department say that it’s really, really hard to go somewhere else.

This football-shaped building is the B. A. Jacques Athletics Facility, which you can see is the biggest structure on campus. When you get tired of studying, and that can happen pretty easily, there’s always sports. U of All People’s women’s -- lacrosse, maybe? -- team is nationally ranked. It’s really cool to watch them run around the field with those sticks in their hands.

You can also get on an intramural team or join a student organization. Anime World, Under-Achievers Association, Burrito-Eating Club, Future Baristas -- actually, that club was disbanded after a nasty caffeine poisoning incident last semester. Anyway, get involved, y’know? Be quirky.

Was that a question about academics? Whether you’re a math geek or a psych type, we’ve got a major for you. Like it says in our brochure. U of All People offers over 17 majors, including a few that no one’s ever figured out. If you need help, we have a bunch of academic advisers, and some are actually available during the hours posted outside their offices. I think a lot of them are maybe just shy.

No, we’re not on the quarter system, but on something called the 24/7 system, which means something’s always happening on campus, even if it’s just someone throwing up in the bathroom at 4:00 a.m. Did I mention that the bathrooms have wifi? Anyway, if you get sick of the place, which happened to my roommate in his sophomore year, we’ve also got study abroad programs in at least two places, I think in Mexico. You don’t even have to know Spanish. And with all the online courses, you don’t even have to be on campus all semester. One girl I met on Facebook has taken only virtual classes. I’m not sure she really exists.

What about financial aid? Good point! I know we offer some, but we don’t encourage it. That’s why we have the Junior Entrepreneur Organization on campus, which sometimes gets confused with the Marijuana Growers Co-op, but it’s just a tiny overlap. What else... let me see. We do have internship programs at the Dollar and a Quarter Store and Burger Boy. We also have Career Services, where they can, like, help you with your résumé. You can do a lot with a college degree! That’s also in our brochure.

Anyway, here we are, back at Bovine Hall. There’s the old holding pen, which means that’s the end of the tour.

Any questions?

David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).

 

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