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PHOENIX -- A group of colleges that offer competency-based education programs this week released a draft set of voluntary quality standards for the emerging form of higher education.

Competency-based education is growing rapidly, with as many as 600 colleges seeking to create new programs. The standards, which the Competency-Based Education Network released at a meeting here, seek to influence the newcomers while also holding established programs accountable.

“Our goal is to provide standards to the field that institutions can draw on to inform the design or scaling of high-quality programs,” Charla Long, the group’s executive director, said in a written statement. C-BEN is a recently created membership group of more than 30 colleges.

Competency-based education typically offers flexible schedules for students, who can master the required learning objectives at differing speeds, sometimes testing out of work by passing assessments. The programs often include online, automated material. And faculty roles are different, with coaches and mentors as well as subject matter experts.

Regulators and accreditors have sent mixed messages about competency-based education, in part due to uncertainty about where the federal government stands. For example, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General has been critical of the way the faculty role is defined and about adherence to the credit-hour standard in some programs.

Ted Mitchell, the under secretary of education, spoke here on Thursday. He stressed that the Obama administration remains excited about competency-based education’s potential.

“It means allowing time and place to vary” as students work toward a credential, Mitchell said. “I’m a big supporter.”

That said, Mitchell said underperforming programs could threaten competency-based education’s growth. He cited for-profit higher education’s inadequate “self-policing,” which might have helped differentiate bad actors from good.

“We need to be pretty strident about what counts as competency-based education and what counts as quality,” Mitchell said, adding that he expected a wide variation in the expanding field. “That doesn’t mean we live with it. We work hard to eliminate the ones that are on wrong end of the tail.”

He praised C-BEN for seeking to head off the “waste, fraud and abuse” that have dogged segments of for-profit higher education.

The risk is real, Mitchell said. That’s partially because the flexible, personalized nature of competency-based degree tracks can create “irresistible opportunities for those who maybe don’t have the best interests of students in mind.”

C-BEN created an online portal for the draft standards, saying it was accepting feedback as a team of experts works on the final version. The group plans to release the final standards early next year, but said they would be reviewed and updated based on data and other evidence for some time.

The standards focus on eight areas, seeking to assure that programs have:

  • Coherent, competency-driven program and curriculum design
  • Clear, measurable, meaningful and complete competencies
  • Credential-level assessment strategy with robust implementation
  • Intentionally designed and engaged student experience
  • Collaborative engagement with external partners
  • Transparency of student learning
  • Evidence-driven continuous improvement processes
  • Demonstrated institutional commitment to capacity for competency-based innovation

Competency-based education has plenty of critics, particularly among some faculty members who say it can be a box-checking approach that is inferior to traditional higher education. Proponents, however, said it can require more rigor and proof of learning, which in turn could influence traditional higher education.

It's unclear if the standards eventually will help win over doubters, but C-BEN at least hopes they will show what a quality program can and should look like.

The Association of American Colleges & Universities has been a strong, nuanced voice on competency-based education. The liberal education group has pushed for coherent curricula with a strong general education core, which isn’t always easy in a form of higher education that has broken degrees into competencies.

Debra Humphreys recently was hired by Lumina Foundation, as vice president of strategic engagement, after a long stint as AAC&U’s vice president of communications, policy and public engagement. She praised C-BEN’s work on the new standards, saying the group was playing an “extremely valuable” role at an important time in the field’s development.

For example, she said the standards could help colleges define in how many areas a student in a competency-based program needs to be proficient to graduate. And strong voluntary thresholds could serve as “guardrails” for quality, which accreditors and regulators could use.

While both Humphreys and the group said the draft standards are the beginning of a long process, she said the stakes are high.

“This new innovation is going to rise and fall on its quality,” said Humphreys.

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