At best, so-called competency- and proficiency-based higher education is a world of good intentions and uncritical enthusiasms. At worst, it seems to be the fulfillment of conservative cost-cutting visions that will put our most enriching higher education experiences still further out of reach for many Americans.
In the U.S. these programs are aimed at sidelining the familiar credit hour in favor of personalized and flexible learning experiences for enrollees. They push the idea that some students will achieve mastery with fewer instructional hours than others and should thus be spared that expenditure of time and money. Online, real-world or self-guided experiences may also stand in for some conventional classroom approaches. Students who demonstrate mastery need not continue instruction in a particular area.
Through the use of all of these innovations, an affordable alternative to the conventional bachelor’s degree is envisioned, meeting the demands of many audiences -- funders, taxpayers and students -- for lowered higher education costs. The promise is that some students will clock fewer hours using the most costly college personnel and resources, and thus face lower debts upon graduation. Students’ “hours in seats,” once the sine qua non of higher education in contrast to vocational instruction, is seen to be an obsolete metric.
The University of Maine Presque Isle is a good example of such priorities, with a new proficiency-based undergraduate program the university rolled out recently with much fanfare. According to Inside Higher Ed , Presque Isle hosts many first-generation, underprepared students, and the campus seeks to help each student to work at his or her own pace along an affordable path of workforce preparation. Let me be clear: I believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that students learn at different rates in different ways; that current student debt levels in the United States are crushing; and that the status quo is deeply disadvantageous to Americans of lower socioeconomic status.
But this plan to save college students and their families money through the use of individualized curriculums; standardized instructional measurements; and reductions in classroom, lab, shop or studio hours will only increase those disadvantages. The university envisions a heightened accountability for its new instructional approach, through a newly careful matching of pedagogical experience and student achievement. But consider the criteria against which such matches will be assessed: success in teaching and learning will be defined by lowered spending. If we focus our attention on that contraction of institutional outlay, the promises of this new educational model start to seem less than solid.
In his recent work on personalized education, Oxford education theorist David Hartley has warned of the ways in which such market focused pedagogy constrains democratic opportunity, and I follow his lead here in considering the university’s new programs. First, if competency-based programs are accepted as cost-saving equivalents to conventional elements of bachelor’s degree curriculums, they render those conventions (because more costly) moot, and even undesirable. The idea that MORE MONEY (as in, public funding) might optimally be spent on higher education for Americans then becomes unreasonable.
And with that move, the notion that every student (not just those of affluence) might learn best by taking more rather than fewer courses, staged as small classes taught by well-compensated, securely employed (tenured!) instructors, in well-resourced facilities, is being taken off the table. The notion that our nation, if it wishes to promote workforce preparation and global economic competitiveness, would do best to EXPAND funding provisions for education is dismissed. Although naturally, crucially, the new cost-saving techniques are never, ever explicitly said to constitute a contraction. That elision makes it seem even more illogical, more irresponsible, to suggest that public monies be raised or reallocated in support of our colleges. To be inclusive is now to be profligate.
Second, we must recognize that despite the consumer-flattering appeal, a personalized curriculum is not automatically an optimized curriculum. For example, the university’s new program emphasizes “Voice and Choice”:
We offer students  a freedom of choice that creates ownership of their degree and allows them to discover their unique identity. Students can choose to demonstrate their deep understanding of a subject by writing papers, taking multiple-choice exams, designing a project, completing a research study and more.
I’d ask: what is such choice, clearly part of the school’s new branding, really providing? I’m all for teaching students to question their instructors’ methods and priorities (see below), but if my students tell me they loathe the conceptual challenges involved in writing a paper, I know that’s one thing they’ll need to attempt before the term ends. If they balk at the logic challenges of multiple choice tests, that’s something I’ll be sure to expose them to. In other words, I suspect that “freedom of choice” is provided here not to facilitate “deep understanding,” but rather to provide a satisfactory customer experience.
While I am excited that the university’s instructors want to introduce students to “problem-posing” and emphasize real-world and hands-on experiences, all potentially engaging and genuinely flexible elements of college teaching, the valorization of market freedom and consumer choice here makes me wary. Like all performance standards, these efficiencies and controls are double-edged, providing a floor for student attainment but also a ceiling, as I’ve written before .
But what is most concerning is that in my experience, it is the errors, dead ends and confusions that launch students into the most profound and transformative moments of learning and self-discovery. These “off rubric” experiences are uncomfortable, and in no obvious way get anyone closer to passing a class or completing a degree. Just the opposite. And yet these are exactly the points at which the learner (not to mention the instructor) is most open to the unfamiliar and unexpected.
I fear that the deployment of “competencies” and “proficiencies” as instruments of economy and brevity is simply antithetical to the open-ended inquiry that is foundational to rigorous critical thinking, for learner and teacher. However concerned and inventive the professors involved in proficiency-based teaching might be, they are now facing clear disincentives to conceptual messiness. Learning, I believe, must be shot through with dissatisfaction, with frustration and moments of utter uncertainty about where one is heading intellectually -- all experiences that are now to be treated as inefficiencies. If these most-perfect conditions for inquiry and invention are the very ones that are now seen to be fiscally unwise, what hope for the creativity and growth of American college-goers?
Amy Slaton  is a professor of history in the department of history and politics at Drexel University.