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Kaplan University will now offer personalized “competency reports” to its 45,000 students. The announcement is the for-profit institution’s biggest move into competency-based education so far, adding momentum and, perhaps, risks for the emerging form of higher education.

The university has been crafting its approach to competency-based education for more than a decade, said Kaplan officials.

The project began by identifying specific competencies that students must master in general education courses, said Betty Vandenbosch, the university’s provost. About six years ago Kaplan started incorporating those general-education competencies across the curriculum. Then, in 2010, the university introduced assessments that seek to measure students’ mastery levels of course-level requirements.

Kaplan also has begun breaking its courses into modules, starting with programs in business, IT and health care. And a new pilot program in business includes some flexibility in pacing, Vandenbosch said. Students can go faster by demonstrating competency in modules, but the start and finish dates of courses are not flexible.

As a result, Kaplan’s modular experiment will stop short of discarding the credit hour. Six institutions have received the U.S. Department of Education’s approval for programs with that approach, which is called direct assessment.

For a final piece, Kaplan last month introduced new professional competencies across the curriculum. Those measures are of students’ abilities in practical, workplace-relevant areas, including communication, teamwork, critical thinking and personal presentation.

The company drew from those various elements in the new competency reports, which will complement traditional student transcripts with grades. (Click here for an example of what one might look like.)

A handful of other colleges have begun experimenting with competency-based student reports. Northern Arizona University, for example, in 2013 created a second transcript for students in its growing competency-based programs.

Such documents are designed to give employers more information about students’ skills. But they’re also an attempt to help students translate their academic experience in a competency-based program for employers, graduate schools or, in the case of transfer students, traditional degree programs.

In some ways competency-based transcripts also share similarities with e-portfolios and even digital badges. All three seek to include more information about student learning than just grades on a transcript.

Kaplan officials said the announcement today is novel because of the new competency reports’ granularity and the scale of their use across an institution that enrolls more than 40,000 students. About 95 percent of Kaplan University's students study online only, with the rest at one of 13 campus locations. The average student at the university is 33 years old, and three-quarters of its students are women.

Vandenbosch said the combination of a competency report and conventional transcript will give a more complete picture of a graduate’s academic achievement.

“Employers know what they’re ready to do when they hire them,” she said.

Scale and Baggage

For-profit colleges remain a divisive issue in higher education. The politicized debate over Corinthian Colleges’ demise, for example, has roiled the Education Department in recent weeks.

Competency-based education is controversial, mostly among faculty members who fear it may wrest control of learning from their hands -- and perhaps be a means of replacing teaching professors with coaches and tutors.

Yet despite the expansion of competency-based programs and the bipartisan interest in this delivery form of education, a serious backlash has yet to emerge. Observers have predicted, however, that the entry of large, publicly traded for-profits could change that dynamic.

For one thing, for-profit chains can make a big splash by spending lots of money to create new programs across large institutions. Some also enjoy close relationships with major employers, as Strayer University demonstrated with its new partnership with Chrysler. That could give the sector a leg up in creating competency-based programs that are appealing to companies and incorporate learning that is relevant to new hires.

For-profits also bring baggage. Fairly or not, a competency-based program at a for-profit will elicit more concerns about quality than a comparable program at a nonprofit.

Just ask officials with Capella University. The online university is a pioneer in competency-based education. Observers for the most part praise Capella’s academic rigor. Yet the university sometimes must push to get invited to high-level discussions about competency-based education’s potential.

Likewise, observers said competency-based programs must set a high bar for credibility to avoid provoking a backlash. And while Kaplan has earned some praise for its broad range of innovations, the for-profit has its critics. Kaplan's expansion into competency-based education raises the stakes for supporters of that approach, in part because of the company's size.

Putting in the Work

Kaplan Inc., which owns Kaplan University, has dabbled before in competency-based programs as well as in prior-learning assessment, which also puts less of a focus on students’ time in a classroom.

The for-profit’s Mount Washington College includes self-pacing in its online programs, which is a hallmark of certain forms of competency-based education. The college includes a focus on prior-learning credits.

Kaplan also last year announced the creation of its Open College. This new institution uses a “personalized learning concierge service” to help students define their learning goals, identify gaps in their knowledge and find open-education resources to fill the gap.

Peter Smith is the college’s president, as well as a former U.S. representative and public university and community college president. “We want people to have choices” at Open College, he said last fall. “We don’t want to favor any one kind of learner over another.”

Open College and Mount Washington, combined with the new competency-based transcripts across Kaplan University, are an attempt by a major player in higher education to experiment with the “disaggregation” of the college degree, said one for-profit-college veteran. And, at first glimpse, Kaplan appears to be putting the work in to make its competency-based education forays be more than window dressing.

Vandenbosch said a key to the university’s competency-based projects paying off is for employers to value what those programs can show about students’ abilities. To make that happen, she said Kaplan has worked with many hiring firms to “make sure what we have is what they need.”

That effort, as well as the task of breaking course requirements and outcomes into competencies, has been labor intensive, said Vandenbosch.

“We’re finally there,” she said. “It took years.”

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