Could Competency-Based College be the Future of Higher Ed?

Awarding credit based on experience outside the classroom isn't a new concept for colleges and universities, but several schools around the country have now taken it to the next level — schools like the Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey which, according to The New York Times, will grant a student a degree without them ever having to take a Thomas Edison course.

Thomas Edison grants its students college credit for competence in a particular subject, not by how many hours they spend in lecture halls. Students can earn credits based on other university courses, on military training or even work experience. They take proctored exams at a testing center nearest to their home and should they pass, the course credit is awarded.

That is how Jennifer Hunt of Indiana earned her Thomas Edison degree – without ever having left her home state. In a mere 14 weeks, by taking an exam every week at the Indiana University testing center, she earned 54 credits. Her entire degree in business administration and applied science – academic materials included – cost her around $5,300.

Pilar Mercedes Foy, 31, a Thomas Edison graduate whose parents did not go to college, said after she got an entry-level job at PSEG, the New Jersey energy company, she realized that she would need a degree to advance. She earned the bulk of her credits through heavily subsidized evening classes offered at work, supplemented by classes at Union County College and 12 credits from the CLEP Spanish exam. For her, earning a degree without taking on a penny of student debt was enough of a milestone that she invited her husband, parents, siblings, in-laws and nieces to the September graduation ceremony.

While the approach used by Thomas Edison might not be viewed as the harbinger and an advanced look at the future of higher education, what is surprising to most is that there's nothing new about it. TESC has been accepting and graduating students for more than three decades, although at the time the mistrust, especially among faculty, was high.

TESC President George A. Pruitt has been in his post long enough now to see those attitudes change, although reluctantly. Even for most vehement critics, however, it is very hard to argue with results.

Results have quieted most naysayers, Dr. Pruitt said. For example, Thomas Edison graduates had the highest pass rate on the exam for certified public accountants in New Jersey, in the latest national accounting-boards report. Still, the approach raises real questions about the meaning of a college degree.

Minding the Campus points towards the quote made by a representative of the Institute for Higher Education Policy who referred to TESC students as "nomads" and said that without a campus to attach them to, there doesn't appear to be anyone to take responsibility for them. It is unsurprising that David Wilezol sees in this attitude utter lack of interest in embracing any kind of higher education model other than the failing system already in place.

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