Earn degrees by showing what you’ve learned? What a concept!
Competency-Based Learning

Earn degrees by showing what you’ve learned? What a concept!

Competency-Based Education Network

We have a saying at Lumina Foundation that’s become something of a mantra:

“It’s all about the learning.”

This mantra isn’t a quip about our own penchant for trial and error (though there’s a fair bit of that here, as there is in any organization). No, when we say: “It’s about the learning,” we’re stating a core commitment, a belief that educational quality shouldn’t be measured by a list of courses taken or grades earned or even the time students spend in classrooms. Rather, we believe quality should be measured by what students actually learn—by the specific knowledge and skills they gain through their programs.

This sort of competency-based approach might seem logical, perhaps even self-evident. But in reality, it’s much more the exception than the rule. Fortunately, that’s changing. In fact, one of Lumina’s goals is that all credentialing be competency-based.

One way to move in that direction is to shine a bright light on colleges and universities that are going all-in—those that are designing programs to be fully competency-based from the ground up. A recent issue of Focus magazine shows how powerful such an approach can be, especially for students from varied backgrounds and with a wide array of learning needs.

In that issue, we talk to some of those students, individuals enrolled in programs at three very different institutions—a large public university system (the University of Wisconsin); a small, private college (Westminster College in Utah); and a tech-focused community college (Texas State Technical College).

The institutions are diverse—as are the students they serve—but the programs offer students several common characteristics, including coaching and mentoring, meaningful interaction with instructors, and rigorous assessment of learning with detailed feedback on performance.

Admittedly, all of these institutions faced challenges in launching their competency-based programs—and it certainly won’t be easy to make this type of learning the norm rather than the exception. But competency-based programs, when taken to full scale, show tremendous promise. They offer an exciting new way to serve many students who seek clearer pathways and alternatives to the regular classroom. And they have much to “teach” others in more traditional, time-based programs.

Also, through the Competency-Based Education Network, an independent nonprofit organization, Lumina is working with educators to ensure they design programs that produce outcomes that are racially and economically just. We must do better by African-American, Latino, and American Indian students—and competency-based learning can help in that vital effort.

Over time, the success of competency-based programs will hinge on how well colleges and universities explain how this approach can support a broader array of today’s students.

Competency-based education programs often “look different” to students, parents, and hiring managers. There may be no grades, and students often have flexibility in how they approach coursework—if courses are even used to structure learning. Some explanation of competency-based education is usually needed to help stakeholders understand how learning occurs in active, supportive environments.

Also, growing these programs will require policy and funding environments at the federal and state levels that permit—even encourage—all of the following:

  • Alternatives to standard definitions of “satisfactory academic progress” and other time-based measures.
  • Transfer agreements that are based on students’ attainment of specific learning objectives rather than the accumulation of credit hours.
  • Approval processes that do not place unfair burdens on competency-based education programs merely because they look different.
  • Outcomes-based funding formulas that are structured in ways that support and encourage competency-based education.
  • Schools should be able to charge tuition for these programs at flat rates or by the competency or sets of knowledge and skills that students have mastered.

Education innovators have an important role in helping people who can make or break these programs—everyone from faculty members, students, and parents to employers, regulators, and policymakers—understand how competency-based approaches can deliver high-quality education.

This issue of Focus can help foster that understanding.

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