Traditionally, schools of higher education have used the conventions of the credit hour, semester, or academic year. Time was the central characteristic; put in the time and get a degree. The new idea is to measure learning, not time. Students can set their own learning pace. This is known as “competency-based education” (CBE). It has gotten the attention of federal and state education departments, universities, and colleges. Currently, only about 34 colleges have active CBE programs that offer credit. A “competency” might be a work portfolio or a score on a standardized test. The input of employers may be necessary; they can determine if a student received good training and is job-competent.
CBE is different because it allows student credit for knowledge acquired through life experience. Students can get CBE credit two ways: prior learning assessment and CBE coursework in which students progress at their own pace as they demonstrate knowledge of academic content.
The main argument in favor of CBE programs is the potential to lower college costs. These programs also serve the nontraditional, adult student who wants more learning flexibility. However, it is not conclusive that CBE programs will save money for all students. Currently, financial aid for these nontraditional programs is not available but the federal government is considering offering Pell Grants.
Many questions need to be answered before the wide adoption of this learning model, especially how to define degrees in terms of “competency.” For more details about competency-based education, see the American Enterprise Institute report by Robert Kelchen.
“I respect faith, but doubt is what gives you an education.” – Wilson Mizner, playwright