Higher education functions now as a system of credit hours. Students count their progress through degree programs using the accumulation of credit hours which, unfortunately, don't correlate very well to the quantity and relevance of the information being absorbed over the course of one's college education, writes Scott Kinney, the President of Capella University.
Now more schools have responded by doing away with the credit hour concept and switching to competence-based degree programs. In this model, only what a student knows and can prove she knows is important. How many hours she took to get there is not.
A competency-based approach to higher education has been particularly successful for older students looking to begin or continue their college education as they balance the requirements of their outside job and family.
Focusing on competencies isn't just a nice thing to do; it responds to a relevant need in our society. A recent Gallup poll found that 87 percent of Americans said that students should be able to receive credit for knowledge and skills learned outside the classroom, and 70 percent believe that mastery of that knowledge, not time spent in the classroom, is what matters in awarding "credit."
Switching to a competency-based system isn't as much of a leap as it first seems. For a credit-hour school, all it would take is to assign specific goals that need to be reached at the end of each of the hours completed. That way the credit hour will become not just a measure of time spent in the classroom but a measure of knowledge one gains.
Some universities are already gaining approval from accrediting bodies to make this shift. And there are signs that the federal government is not averse to a little experimentation with higher education experience — in March, the U.S. Department of Education released a guideline to aid the schools that wish to try programs that directly assess student learning rather than use credit hour as a proxy for knowledge.
Finding an approach that combines the need to preserve academic quality and maintain a central role for faculty with the opportunity to directly assess learning and competencies represents an opportunity for innovation on a significant scale. Specifically, a competency-based approach can improve both completion and affordability. By allowing students to go as fast as they are able in demonstrating their knowledge and being agnostic regarding the source of content, students can pay on a subscription model that has the potential to decrease time-to-completion and increase flexibility and return on investment.