Amy Slaton's February 21 essay is a good example of how a well-intentioned effort to defend the value of higher education ends up portraying competency-based education as something it’s not and perpetuates the view that there is only one true approach to higher education.
To understand the recent focus on competency-based education, it’s important to recognize a few critical realities.
Second, state support dropped in 2012 to its lowest rate in 25 years.
Third, technology has yet to generate the dramatic cost savings we’ve seen in other arenas. For example, in 1900, the average American family spent 50 percent of its income on food and more than half of the American workforce was engaged in farming. Today, food consumes just 8 percent of household income and farming requires only 2 percent of the labor force.
Fourth, the American public has very mixed feelings about higher education. On the one hand, we know that better-educated individuals are happier on average, make better personal financial decisions, suffer fewer spells of unemployment and enjoy better health. On the other hand, there is a widely shared view that higher education is overpriced, inefficient, elitist, and inaccessible.
Fifth, research by Richard Florida (The Rise of the Creative Class) and Thomas Friedman (That Used to Be Us) and others has shown the importance of higher education to the future welfare of this country, just as global competition is mounting and our worldview is being shaken.
This is the reality in which higher education is operating as it tries to solve the problems of access and cost, while protecting quality and rigor.
Slaton’s solution to the cost problem is to typographically shout that higher education should get “MORE MONEY (as in, public funding).”
Unfortunately, shouting and wishing it so seldom works. The fact is that Americans are not willing to spend more money on the public good, let alone agree on what the public good is. The bottom line is that higher education is going to have to help itself; no one is coming to its rescue.
Enter competency-based education. It was introduced in America towards the end of the 1960s, but it applied only to small niche markets. Back then, cost and access were not the acute problems that they have become. The reason that new models are emerging now is that competency-based education is a well-conceived effort to meet at least some of the challenges facing higher education today. It is not the only effort, but it is promising because if done well, it addresses the issues of cost, quality, scaling and individualized learning all at once.
Competency-based education is a team effort. Similar to traditional higher education, faculty continue to be on center stage; they are the experts and the specialists. They set the standards and the criteria for success. They decide what students must know and how they must be able to demonstrate their knowledge in order to qualify for a degree.
Faculty in competency-based education work collaboratively to determine the structure of curriculum as a whole, the levels of competencies, and assessments that best measure competency. When constructed well, a competency-based curriculum is tight, with little ambiguity about how students must perform to demonstrate mastery, move through the program, and qualify for a degree.
The individualized nature of teaching changes. In their relationships with students, faculty function more like tutors and academic quality guarantors, attending to those students who need their expertise the most. Other staff, including advisers, coaches, professional tutors, instructional designers, and others, all pull in the same direction to make the learning and mastery process for students individualized, comprehensive, effective and efficient.
In his January 30 piece on Inside Higher Ed, Paul LeBlanc wrote that competency-based education "offers a fundamental change at the core of our higher education ‘system’: making learning non-negotiable and the claims for learning clear while making time variable. This is a profound change and stands to reverse the long slow erosion of quality in higher education.”
Competency-based education is not a panacea that will save higher education, but no one claims that it is. It is one approach to higher education that expands students’ options for learning and most importantly, expands their access while focusing on what they know and are able to do (instead of focusing on how many hours students spend in a classroom or the number of credits they pay for).
Today 40 percent of college students are nontraditional (U.S. Department of Education): they work full time, they have families, they care for aging parents and they attend to myriad responsibilities that make going to college in the traditional time blocks impractical if not impossible. In addition, many adult students have knowledge and experiences that are worthy of academic recognition that’s unavailable through traditional programs.
The view that the status quo is the only correct model of teaching and learning is the kind of hubris that makes higher education appear haughty and conceited, rather than as a vehicle for growth and opportunity. Competency-based education is a viable and important approach that provides students with another option for accessing and benefiting from higher education. We should support its development, and we should strongly encourage students to create ownership of their degrees and allow them to discover their unique identities.
If not this, what else is higher education for?
David Schejbal is dean of continuing education, outreach and e-learning at University of Wisconsin-Extension.
During January’s White House opportunity summit, policy makers and higher education leaders announced over 100 new initiatives designed to bolster first-generation and low-income students’ college success. While students who overcome the odds to gain access to college bring with them significant grit and resilience, the road through college is often a rocky one.
First Lady Michelle Obama described the obstacles that first-generation and low-income students commonly confront. No stranger to these challenges, she said:
You’re in a whole new world. You might have trouble making friends because you don’t see any peers who come from a background like yours. You might be worried about paying for classes, and food, and room and board because you have never had to set your own budget before. You might be feeling guilty when you call home because Mom and Dad are wondering why you didn’t get a job so you could help support their family. Those are the kinds of obstacles these kids are facing right from day one.
Even among the select group that make it to college, first-generation and low-income students, on average, find it harder to fit in, receive lower grades, and drop out at higher rates than do students from higher income backgrounds with college-educated parents (i.e., continuing-generation students). Study after study demonstrates that the financial, academic, and psychological barriers that these students encounter can significantly undermine their performance.
The summit shined the national policy spotlight on this persistent social class achievement gap. Our own and others’ research shows that these feelings of exclusion and difference that the First Lady described are key factors that fuel the gap. While all students tend to question whether they belong and have what it takes to succeed, these concerns are magnified for first-generation and low-income students because of the mismatch they experience as they enter this “whole new world” of higher education.
Our research provides compelling evidence that talking about social class equips first-generation and low-income students to succeed. In our recent study, published in Psychological Science, we invited first-generation and continuing-generation students at the beginning of the school year to attend a one-hour program designed to help them transition to college. Unbeknownst to them, half of the students attended a “difference-education” program while the other half attended a “standard” program. In both programs, newly minted first-years at an elite university listened to a diverse panel of junior and senior students talk about their transition to college, challenges they faced, and how they found success. In the difference-education program, however, panelists’ stories also included a discussion of how their social class backgrounds mattered in college. In the standard program, panelists did not reveal their social class.
We found that the difference-education program closed the achievement gap between first- and continuing-generation students. First-generation students had higher year-end grade-point averages and better learned to take advantage of college resources that could help them succeed — like seeking mentorship and extra help from professors — than their peers that participated in the standard program. An added bonus was that all students who participated in the difference-education program — both first- and continuing-generation — gained a deeper understanding of how students’ diverse backgrounds and perspectives mattered in college than their peers in the standard program. They also experienced a smoother college transition — they were less stressed, felt like they fit in socially, and were more connected to their home and school.
When we talk with educators and administrators about the success of this research, many are inspired to start a program like ours and reap the rewards; yet, they also voice trepidation. What happens if talking about social class leads students to feel threatened? What if students are not receptive to the message? What if we get accused of stereotyping or stigmatizing students because of their backgrounds?
These are understandable concerns. Talking about difference is threatening to many people, especially since Americans don’t like to talk about social class. Drawing on key insights from social psychology and multicultural education, engaging students in a conversation about how their different backgrounds matter can be instructive and empowering for all involved. But, you need to do it in the right way. Below we outline key guidelines that educators should follow:
Show how all students can experience college differently – the success of this type of program hinges on framing it as relevant to all students, rather than as a “diversity initiative” directed only at disadvantaged students who need extra help. A unique benefit of our approach was that all students learned about how their backgrounds can shape what they experience in college. We recommend that both the senior students who share their stories and the incoming students who participate in the program are first- and continuing-generation. First, it will ensure that first-generation students do not feel “singled out” or stigmatized as students in need of extra help. Second, it will help students learn about each other’s different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences. Representing difference as a normal part of the college experience — and life, more generally — is a crucial lesson in today’s increasingly diverse world.
Start with a solid foundation — the college transition is rife with uncertainty. Our own work and that of others consistently shows that these types of transitional programs benefit students the most when they are conducted during or immediately after students’ first weeks on campus. Students’ initial social and academic experiences are the foundation upon which the rest of their experiences will be built. Give them a strong foundation right away.
Let senior students share their own stories — incoming students need to be able to see themselves and hear their own voices reflected in the stories the older students tell. To do this, select a diverse group of students who take pride in their backgrounds and are comfortable discussing their social class (in addition to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and so on). This sends a strong signal that difference is a source of pride and strength rather than shame.
Don’t be afraid of the negative (but offset it with the positive) — incoming students need to hear the real stuff, not an idealized version of what other students have gone through. First-generation students confront a lot of adversity during the college transition. For example, many struggle to choose a major, identify a future career path, or reconcile their life back home with their new life in college. They need to learn about the obstacles they are likely to face, but also need to understand that each obstacle is surmountable when they use the right strategies and rely on their resilience.
Deliver a powerful (but subtle) message — we know that Americans don’t like to talk about class. We recommend giving students a subtle nudge to show them how it matters — through hearing other students’ stories — rather than telling them directly that class is something that they need to watch out for. Encourage them to think about and apply what they learn to their own lives and let them come to their own conclusions. Give students the chance to process the information and make it their own – for example, by writing an essay or making a video about what they learned to share with next year’s incoming students.
Colleges and universities have a responsibility to prepare students for success in our increasingly diverse and multicultural world. When done the right way, transitional programs have the potential to help to make this “whole new world” of higher education a less alienating, and more welcoming place, for all students — especially for those who need it the most.
Nicole M. Stephens, MarYam G. Hamedani and Mesmin Destin
Nicole M. Stephens is associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
MarYam G. Hamedani is associate director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University.
Mesmin Destin is an assistant professor in the department of psychology and the School of Education & Social Policy at Northwestern University.