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.
Last month the White House hosted a higher education summit to draw attention to the problem of college attainment among low-income students. The summit focused in particular on “undermatching,” in which high-achieving, low-income students fail to apply to highly selective colleges, and instead attend less competitive institutions.
It is without question that all students deserve a chance to attend a college that will give them the best shot in life, and I applaud efforts to better inform students about their choices. However, while we are rightly concerned about directing more underserved students to selective colleges, we should also recognize that sending more students to these colleges will not improve the overall quality of our higher education system.
The reality is that even in a perfectly matched world, millions of low-income, minority, first-generation, and immigrant students will continue to enroll in community colleges. If we want to improve educational outcomes among these groups of students, then we need to improve the colleges so many of them will attend.
Community colleges have been extremely successful at opening the doors to college for disadvantaged students, but thus far, they have had less success in helping them graduate. Less than 40 percent of students who start in community colleges complete a credential in six years. The success rates are worse for low-income and minority students.
So how can community colleges deliver better quality for their students? It will not be easy. Over the last 15 years, faculty and administrators have worked tirelessly to implement reforms in teaching and support services. These efforts have failed to raise completion rates.
A critical reason for this disappointing outcome is that reform initiatives have focused too narrowly on one aspect of the student experience, such as entry, remedial education or the first semester. While many initiatives have led to some success for targeted students, these improvements have been too small and too short-lived to affect overall college performance.
Research conducted by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University’s Teachers College and others makes abundantly clear that improving services like developmental education is necessary but not sufficient: the entire student community college experience must be strengthened.
Some community colleges are beginning to recognize this imperative, and are entering a new phase of far more comprehensive and transformative reform. In particular, some are at the forefront of implementing what CCRC terms the guided pathways model.
That approach responds to the fact that most community college students need far more structure and guidance; it attends to all aspects of the student experience, from preparation and intake to completion. The model includes robust services to help students choose career goals and majors. It features the integration of developmental education into college-level courses and the organization of the curriculum around a limited number of broad subject areas that allows for coherent programs of study. And, importantly, it stresses the strong, ongoing collaboration between faculty, advisers and staff.
Initiatives such as the Gates-funded Completion by Design and Lumina's Finish Faster are advancing such comprehensive reforms by helping colleges and college systems create clear course pathways within programs of study that lead to degrees, transfer and careers.
The new Guttman Community College at the City University of New York (CUNY) -- perhaps the most ambitious example of a comprehensive approach to the community college student experience -- incorporates many elements of the guided pathways model. And CUNY’s ASAP program, which like Guttman takes a holistic approach to student success, has significantly improved associate degree completion rates.
Ambitious and comprehensive reforms are rare for good reason -- they are risky and difficult to implement. But they also offer the possibility of transformative improvement. Our frustration with the progress of reform in community colleges is not because skilled and dedicated people have not tried; rather, the reforms themselves have been self-limiting.
President Obama has rightly asked the nation to attend with renewed urgency to the problem of college attainment among low-income students. But the focus on undermatching is driven partly by a perception that the distribution of quality among colleges and universities is and will remain fixed.
This need not be so. Bold, large-scale reforms can improve institutions across the higher education system so that no matter where our neediest students enroll, they are ensured the best possible chance of success.
Thomas Bailey is director of the Community College Research Center at Teacher's College Columbia University.
Frederika (Fraka) Harmsen, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and a professor of geology at California State University at Chico, has been chosen as provost and vice president for academic affairs at California State University at Sacramento.