Seat Time or Competency?

For most, the equation for earning a college degree is fairly simple. Take approximately 120 credit hours (give or take) and you get the sheepskin. For many, what is supposed to be a four-year endeavor can actually take five or six years. For a select few, they manage to shave a semester or two off the top before walking in their caps and gowns.

But is the true measure of college learning the number of hours you’ve actually spent sitting in a lecture hall? Is a college education about seat time, or is it about what you’ve learned and how you can apply it?

Over at Strategy Labs, an initiative supported by the Lumina Foundation, they are exploring a number of topics related to “state policy to increase higher education achievement.” One of the topics that is of particular note is the exploration of competency-based higher education. As the folks at Strategy Labs define in a new white paper on Competency-Based Education Initiatives, competency-based ed “allows students to earn their degrees by demonstrating specific knowledge and skills related to programs of study, as well as general skills, abilities and behaviors such as the ability to communicate well with a variety of audiences orally and in writing.”

Imagine that. College degrees focused on what you actually know and how you can apply it. Degrees that look at skills and abilities, and not simply time on task. A degree that, in theory, is outcomes based and not simply about the time-based inputs that went into the degree pursuits.

In looking at those states involved in national competency-based education initiatives, what is most surprising is that the vast majority of IHEs involved are public institutions, and not private or for-profit ones. Those states that can boast competency-based ed at at least one public college or university include: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin.

Add to it states that are seeing competency-based action at just their private or for-profit universities, and we can add Ohio, Tennessee, Washington, and Wyoming to the mix. And many states can also add partnerships between their community colleges and Western Governors University to the mix.

So which states aren’t in on the fun? Who’s still clinging to the old model of seat-time based college degrees? That would include Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The white paper is definitely worth a look, particularly when you see some “name brand” universities involved in competency-based higher education. Northern Arizona University, one of the true leaders in online higher ed, is on the list., So is DePaul University, IUPUI, University of Maryland (University College), the Minnesota State Colleges and University System, Texas A&M, and University of Wisconsin. The Kentucky Community and Technical College System is also representing. As are the Missouri Community Colleges.

As Strategy Labs notes:

Competency-based education is not new to higher education; however, there has been a recent resurgence of interest. The growth has been driven primarily by efforts to redefine the quality of higher education in terms of student learning, As states, systems and institutions more widely implement competency-based programs, there are a number of initiatives aimed at better understanding these programs, how to set supportive contexts for these programs and how to effectively scale and communicate about these programs.

As more states start exploring $10,000 degrees, as more IHEs recognize that students are consumers and their needs must be factored in, and as we demand more than a “well-rounded student” from those who attain a postsecondary degree, focus on competency-based education will continue to grow. The challenge will be how to meet the need without sacrificing quality. But these institutions seem to be off to a good start.

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