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Competency-Based Education: Adding Value in the Liberal Arts

Student job fair

SOURCE: AP/Jim Cole

Students attend a job fair at Plymouth State University in Manchester, New Hampshire.

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Despite continued evidence that going to college pays off for graduates in terms of higher wages over the long term, rising tuition costs, student-debt levels, and media reports focusing on recent graduates inability to find jobs mean that the value of higher education is repeatedly questioned and that there is a growing concern regarding the assessment of student learning and college performance. A recent Northeastern University study found that only 38 percent of employers rated the U.S. higher education system as excellent or good at preparing students for the workforce, compared with 62 percent who rated it fair or poor. Another study found that a majority of employers agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major,” a result that would seem to favor liberal arts graduates.

Even with liberal arts schools seeking to provide a comprehensive education, a similar question of value has surrounded the liberal arts as a number of studies have shown that recent graduates from these schools struggle in the job market. For example, a study in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Current Issues found that the unemployment rate for graduates with liberal arts degrees was relatively high compared with other fields, and 52 percent were underemployed in jobs that did not require a college degree. The scrutiny of unemployment rates is compounded by concerns over rising tuition costs, leaving liberal arts colleges with the task of proving their value, even though studies also show that liberal arts degrees pay off over time and that the skills provided by liberal arts programs are highly desired in the workforce. Providing students and graduates with competency-based evaluations based on marketable skills could help clarify their job-readiness to employers and reduce both their unemployment and underemployment rates.

Competency-based approaches to education, focused on demonstrated, marketable skills, have increased in popularity as an innovative method of ensuring that graduates are well prepared for the job market by connecting educational credentials with employer expectations. The approach is focused on what students learn as opposed to the traditional method of the credit hour, a measure of learning based on a specific amount of time. Additionally, competency-based education takes a student-centric approach by allowing students to gain credit for what they already know, reducing costs, and creating a system that is not only more efficient, but more effective at producing a greater amount of degrees at a lower cost. However, this approach can also be extended to schools that use the credit hour in order to evaluate and apply measurable criteria to show student learning in a way that is applicable in the workforce and beyond, as in the case of liberal arts colleges.

For liberal arts schools such as Sarah Lawrence College, which has no majors or grades in the traditional sense, proving marketable skills to employers can be particularly challenging for graduates. How does a school that values intellectual exploration, flexibility, and adaptability prove the value of a liberal arts education that looks very different from traditional programs and features none of the same learning metrics? To assess learning and prove marketable skills, Sarah Lawrence recently adopted its own assessment system based on a set of core competencies. The assessment system requires professors to evaluate each of their students based on six critical abilities: thinking analytically; communicating effectively in writing; orally exchanging ideas effectively; bringing innovation to your work; thinking independently; and taking and acting on criticism. Sarah Lawrence President Karen R. Lawrence says that although the college has struggled with an internal question of how to measure and prove its value and success among students and faculty, the struggle goes beyond just an internal question or a private school question to what business leaders, the media, and the federal government are demanding of higher education: proof of abilities that will help students get jobs when they graduate and in the future amid a changing employment landscape. Despite the school’s relative prestige and success, it finds the additional competency assessment useful to provide students with a more clearly defined path to the workforce. Like Sarah Lawrence, competency-based programs that neglect the traditional credit hour are centered on solving the same problem of demonstrating student learning in order to provide a path to the workforce through clear and measurable competencies while also providing other benefits.

Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, is another liberal arts college using competency-based learning to not only improve student outcomes and decrease costs but also to provide students and employers with measurable, marketable skills. The school’s Customized, Outcome-based, Relevant Evaluation, or CORE, program—aimed at nontraditional students returning to school to complete a degree—uses a behavioral assessment system where student enrollees take part in a day-long, in-person assessment of 15 baseline competencies, including problem solving, decision making, and organizing and planning. Through the assessments, each student can earn up to a maximum of 30 credits, amounting to a savings of about $500 per credit earned. Lipscomb exclusively evaluates student skills and progress using competency-based criteria. These methods serve as a way of attracting and better serving mid-career adults, but for now, they make the university ineligible to participate in federal student aid programs. This type of system rewards students for what they already know, offers increased transferability of previously earned credits, and decreases the cost and amount of time it takes to receive a degree and enter the workforce by focusing on competencies that are desired by employers. When developing the program, the university listened to the feedback of local business leaders, and as a result, now provides badges recognizing learning in core competencies that can then be displayed on students’ e-portfolios available to employers.

A 2013 Center for American Progress report titled “Meeting Students Where They Are” told the stories of students participating in competency-based education programs and demonstrated some of the same key concerns being addressed by schools such as Sarah Lawrence and Lipscomb through competency-based approaches. For example, students found value in their respective programs’ ability to focus on competencies that are directly applicable to their day-to-day work lives. For many adult students, being able to pursue a degree around their work schedule is critical. For others, taking courses where previous academic or professional work counts toward a degree makes learning easier and more relatable. As reflected in the report, one of the biggest challenges for students was proving what they have learned in writing, a focus that is paramount and measurable in Sarah Lawrence’s competency-based approach. Particularly true for adult students—like many of those attending competency-based programs at Lipscomb—was that they saw their education through the program specifically as a means of career advancement. The student-centric approach allows students to be rewarded for prior learning and provides the necessary flexibility needed for a clear, more direct path to the workforce, regardless of the student’s academic level or background.

Competency-based programs and evaluation can help liberal arts colleges describe what students learn— which is particularly useful in instances where practical skills can be vague—as well as potentially provide all students with a more direct option at a quality institution focused on student needs. The Center for American Progress has recommended that competency-based programs gain broader authority under the Higher Education Act. The next anticipated reauthorization should clearly identify alternative means of measuring student progress, aside from the credit hour, which allows equivalent levels of aid to be disbursed. Efforts to expand competency-based education should seek to develop a common set of quality standards for both program delivery and assessment that support the establishment of competency frameworks and the development of valid criteria and student support. Lastly, business and industry stakeholders should be enlisted to help define the competencies needed for greater alignment between education and the workplace both for entry-level positions and throughout an individual’s career.

Antoinette Flores is a Policy Analyst on the Postsecondary Education Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

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