Another Take on Competency

Competency-based education can strengthen, not weaken, the liberal arts and provide a path to better wages and lives for adult students, Paul LeBlanc and Jim Selbe write.

February 2, 2016

We read Steven Ward’s Feb. 1 critique of competency-based education -- “Let Them Eat Cake (Competently)” -- with some sense of weary bemusement.

Where to start? Let’s start with a simple fact: CBE programs that offer associate or bachelor's-level degree programs and are regionally accredited (in other words, the majority of programs) have to include liberal arts and general education.

Indeed, we would argue that CBE strengthens the case for liberal arts by more clearly outlining the claims for that part of the curriculum, defining those competencies with well-designed rubrics and administering rigorous assessments.

While Ward’s students can slide by with a B or C in his class and one would be hard pressed to know what students actually learned or can do with their learning based on their transcripts, our students must demonstrate mastery, even if that takes two or three times longer than the mere 14-week term Ward’s students experience. When CBE students are successful, we know what they have learned and what they can do with that knowledge, and employers do not have to guess.

Ward erroneously posits liberal arts in CBE as “a light, fast and vocation-friendly version,” but in our CBE models learning is fixed and nonnegotiable, and we can stand behind the claims we make for our students. Can the professor say the same for his classes in a traditional model, where nationally students routinely graduate with poor writing, math and critical-thinking skills (and in half the cases don’t graduate at all)?

Consider this post from College for America graduate Shannon Lougee:

“While in the program, I learned about so many things. I learned about lean principles, the Federal Reserve, globalization and the moral philosophies of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. I learned about the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment while exploring art from masters such as Giotto, Donatello, Rembrandt, Manet and Picasso. I studied how the earth cycles water, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous; the enormity of the Great Pacific garbage patch; and the devastating impact pollution is having on sea turtles, birds, fish and the overall health of our precious oceans. Through CfA, I strengthened my listening skills, practiced giving and receiving feedback, and improved my ability to resolve conflict while working on teams. I even learned how to better manage stress, which helped me juggle work and family while earning my degree.”

Shannon’s education does not sound merely “vocation friendly” or reflective of “mundane knowledge,” but full of the breadth, depth and richness of liberal learning that we value and that Ward worries about.

What he seems to worry less about is evoked in Lougee’s last sentence, her life as a student while also taking care of a family and working full time. Ward imagines CBE as “an education system that is ‘restructured to stream youth into the flexible labor system, based on a privileged elite, a small technical working class and a growing precariat.’” The great majority of our students are not youth. They are in the labor system, often making minimum -- non-family sustaining -- wages, and looking for the competencies and credentials that will allow them to get better, more meaningful work, so they can take better care of their families.

A hallmark of CBE is to assess a student's prior learning and to add efficiency to the student's pursuit of education. Why force students to relearn what they already know or to learn at the same pace? Ward makes an assumption that not only do all his students come to the class with the same background and experience, but that all will follow the course calendar and are moving on whether material is learned or not.

So yes, an important part of CBE is that it is focused on labor market value, and we won’t apologize for helping our students get better-paying jobs.

We think CBE can work in almost any context for any kind of student, assuring quality in learning in ways that the traditional models simply do not touch, but we know that it can be transformative for students who have been marginalized or failed in the traditional models Ward valorizes. For those students, real skills and a college degree can mean food on the table and a pathway to advancement. This end result of “democratizing knowledge” through CBE is what higher education was always intended to do.

Workplace relevancy aside, it is telling that Ward seems oblivious to the considerable failings of the model he defends, whether it be high attrition rates, slow completion rates (isn’t it telling that we measure success in four-year programs by using a six-year measuring stick?), high costs and the amount of debt students are now asked to assume, and the general loss of faith in what it produces in terms of quality, knowledge and skills.

Quality is ostensibly Ward’s chief concern, and as such, he should embrace CBE. Not only because it can strengthen the liberal arts by making clearer its value and making sure our graduates meet the claims we make for them, but because well-designed CBE programs work so well.

Consider that Western Governors University, a pioneer in the CBE world, has the top-ranked teacher education program. Or that associate-level students in College for America outperformed 7,815 of their peers from 27 conventional institutions in seven of eight categories on the externally validated ETS Proficiency Profile.

We of course worry about poorly designed CBE programs, as we worry about poor online programs and poor programs on traditional campuses.

But we know that well-designed CBE programs that make very clear the claims for student learning -- all kinds of learning, including the liberal arts -- and then subject their students to rigorous assessment can not only offer very high-quality learning, but we also believe they will have a positive impact on traditionally delivered programs.

Indeed, it is our belief that CBE, with its focus on quality, disregard for time and prices that working people can afford (the majority of College for America students graduate with zero debt), can save higher education in many ways.


Paul LeBlanc is President of Southern New Hampshire University, and Jim Selbe is a higher education consultant.

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