Recently The Atlantic  predicted that one of the top five trends impacting higher education will be a push toward credit given for experience, proficiency and documented “competency.” The recent results of Inside Higher Ed’s survey of chief academic officers  also show openness to competency-based outcomes.
For many, myself included, this simply sounds like a series of placement tests and seems like a pretty shallow approach to a college education and degree. However, as vice president of enrollment and chief marketing officer for a residential college, I can’t ignore the appeal of the “validation” of learning this trend suggests.
In fact, I find myself thinking more and more about how residential colleges, with their distinct missions, might respond to the potential threat this trend represents. I find myself hoping we can prove the residential environment results in valuable learning and life experiences beyond getting along with a roommate, asking someone on a date, learning how to tap a keg and configuring a renegade wireless network.
We can do more. Perhaps the idea of competency-based education should inspire us to think differently about how the learning environment of the residential experience is superior. Perhaps there are competencies associated with a residential college we’ve not done an adequate job of documenting?
This will not be easy for most of us. Our natural instinct to “wait and see how good our students turn out” to justify why students should live and learn on campus won’t work this time, as we face a skeptical public and witness more and more college presidents, administrators and boards reconsidering the value of online education. With some intentionality, we can do a much better job of proving why learning in a residential setting is superior.
We need to ask ourselves: Why is the residential campus experience of utmost importance to a contemporary undergraduate education? We must identify the sorts of learning that can only occur in such a setting, and validate, or better identify, the learning competencies that occur outside the classroom on a residential campus.
This will be difficult in an environment defined by shrinking resources, when many resort to thinking about eliminating activities considered not central to the core mission. The instinct is to cut, de-emphasize or keep separate and second. We see this time and time again in any setting that faces difficult choices about resources. But investment, integration and intentionality create a better path forward.
Can liberal arts colleges resist the urge to cut, and rethink how activities in the residential environment are central to the core mission? Can these colleges develop meaningful ways of measuring the value and impact of such activities and how they result in competencies that add value and worth? Can residential liberal arts colleges develop a “currency” that demonstrates they value out-of-classroom learning comparably to in-classroom learning? I hope so.
While many colleges would benefit from integrating out-of-classroom learning, residential liberal arts colleges must do so because of the infrastructure around which our colleges have been built -- residence and dining halls, student activity centers, athletic venues and performance halls. We need to prove these are not just modern amenities, but central to superior learning.
To validate this learning experience, residential liberal arts colleges will need to rethink historic barriers. Learning that occurs outside the classroom can no longer be viewed as “separate and second.”
Extra-curricular and co-curricular transcripts that fully document competencies and outcomes essential to success beyond college must evolve to be fully integrated with the academic program, and valued both internally and externally.
First, residential liberal arts colleges must clearly define the learning outcomes and expectations. This is frequently a faculty-driven exercise. Understanding the knowledge gained from an activity provides a framework around which out-of-classroom learning can be developed. This framework will allow for alignment of purpose and some measure of control about how central an out-of-classroom activity is to the core mission and which competencies are satisfied as a result.
Georgetown University was recently recognized for their excellent programming in the area of preparing student-athletes for leadership. Recognition of activities that successfully align with and even expand learning is critical for the public to be convinced that such activities are core to a high-quality education.
Next, residential liberal arts colleges must create a “currency” that meaningfully recognizes those activities that advance a student’s education, e.g., elective academic credit, a credit-bearing on-campus internship, or certificate for activities that demonstrate substantive interest and professional and personal development.
Student activities might be reorganized into mission-focused areas that provide students with experience not always fully represented in the academic program, but with relevance to a successful application for employment or graduate school.
Some examples might be: Leadership, Teamwork, Civic Engagement, Social Justice, Service Learning, Entrepreneurship and Business Development, Intercultural Understanding, Interfaith and Spiritual Development, Public Relations and Event Planning, and Sustainability. This approach is similar to competency-based certification, but broader than proof that a student can read a balance sheet or do a 10-minute presentation.
Finally, liberal arts colleges should engage in a broader conversation about why they are residential, without saying it’s because they’ve been that way for 150 years. Too many colleges assume students already understand. Such a learning environment can positively shape a student’s character and skillset, and result in sweeter success, but a residential community does not always acknowledge or articulate this success.
With competency-based education in the spotlight, residential colleges have an opportunity to renew a focus on the benefits to students who not only eat and sleep, but also meet colleagues, connect with mentors, challenge themselves in new ways, and develop 21st-century skills and competencies on campus.
If we do not champion and clearly identify the benefits to our students, we are vulnerable to the advocates of no-frills bachelor’s degrees, willy-nilly life experience for credit, online learning, and the commodifiers among us who believe the value of the college experience is test- and content-driven, rather than experiential and residential in nature.
W. Kent Barnds is executive vice president and vice president of enrollment, communication and planning at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Ill.