A recent study suggests that although there is growing interest in skills- and competency-based learning, few colleges and universities have actually implemented the new model.
The report, released Wednesday by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), a network of colleges and universities across the country, states that despite a majority of higher education faculty and staff (86 percent) agreeing with the need for academic programs designed to build specific skills, far fewer (22 percent) said their institutions had actually implemented a campuswide competency-based framework.
“While this is a really hot topic when it comes to thinking about skills-based hiring, I’m not sure that higher education institutions are fully on board or prepared to be a part of that kind of ecosystem yet,” said Becky Klein-Collins, vice president of research and impact at CAEL and a co-author of the report.
CAEL advocates for innovative collaboration between colleges and employers to create better pathways to employment. It published the study in partnership with Modern Campus, a higher ed tech company, and The EvoLLLution, a digital news and opinion platform sponsored by Modern Campus.
The findings are based on a survey that received 173 responses from administrators, faculty and staff across 144 colleges and universities from various sectors between July and August 2023.
The study’s genesis was rooted in trying to determine how many colleges were implementing new digital tools designed to track student achievements in nontraditional learning models.
Known as comprehensive learning records, or CLRs, these tools are verifiable, interoperable registrar systems that recognize and document various forms of learning, including in traditional courses, competency-based modules and co-curricular and experiential learning programs.
Klein-Collins and her team also wanted to determine whether institutions have the building blocks in place to even use a CLR.
“If you aren’t using a skills- and competency-based framework for your degrees and programs, then it’s sort of a moot point as to whether you’re doing CLR,” she said. “You can’t really have one without starting on the other.”
So, in addition to asking about consideration of CLR use, the survey asked whether institutions are taking active steps to reconceptualize their programs in terms of skills or competencies achieved rather than credit hours earned. The results showed while these new concepts are relatively popular in theory, neither are common in practice, at least not yet.
Although 85 percent of respondents said their institutions regularly talk to employers about the skills they want in employees and 89 percent said they then relay those findings to students, only 44 percent said their institution had developed skill- or competency-based frameworks in at least some of their programs.
There were slightly more respondents working at two-year institutions who said their college had a skills-based model in place for some or all programs (73 percent) than those from four-year institutions (61 percent). The same trend held true in relation to implementations of CLRs.
Klein-Collins wasn’t surprised by the results. She noted that if the same study had been conducted just five years ago, the level of employee interest and institutional implementation would have been far lower, so any increase in visibility is a win.
“We’re capturing the perspectives of higher education at a time when we’re in a very much transitional phase,” she said.
Melanie Gottlieb, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said the report supports a conclusion the association reached in its own study, “Credential Confusion”: the term “comprehensive learning records” is not commonly used in higher education, and misunderstanding surrounding the term itself may be a barrier to progress.
Despite the confusion about terminology, there is growing interest in developing new systems that document the skills and competencies already embedded in higher education credentials.
“This is good news,” Gottlieb wrote in an email.
AACRAO has been researching the use and efficacy of comprehensive learning records since 2015, when it received a $1.27 million grant from the Lumina Foundation to pilot CLRs with nine higher ed institutions.
“Institutions will be better positioned to attract, retain and graduate learners if they can connect their learning to their future work,” she said. “What they call it matters less than the end result—delivering on the value of higher education.”
Amber Garrison Duncan, executive vice president of Competency-Based Education Network, a research and consulting group, noted that the data in the CAEL report are from a relatively small sample size. She cautioned against viewing this report as representative of all higher ed institutions. But she was nonetheless thrilled to see other higher ed advocates take on such a project.
“It’s certainly a hard thing to do right now, given that none of our reporting groups, federal or state, are set up to track things like this,” Garrison Duncan said.
Garrison Duncan noted that although community and technical colleges have started to take the lead on this initiative, many four-year colleges, especially regional ones that are more connected to local employers, are also engaged in these efforts.
“It’s hard work,” she said. “Moving from a time-based system to a competency- and skills-based system is not something that our institutions were set up to do, let alone are they funded to make that transition.”
The report concludes that colleges and universities need more state and federal financial support to adopt these new approaches.
“I hope that state and institutional leaders sees this report as a transition point to start thinking about, ‘What more could we be doing in-house so that we can really start to make progress in a meaningful way?’” Klein-Collins said. “‘How can we create the kind of comprehensive record that’s going to be of greatest use for linking our programs to the workplace needs of employers?’”