The Promise of Competency-Based Credentials

A blog about business and economics.
April 29 2013 5:18 PM

Competency-Based Credentials Could Change Higher Education

We passed an important milestone this month as the University of Southern New Hampshire's "College for America" program became the first competence-based higher education program to become eligible for federal financial aid.

This may completely flop, but if it doesn't it should be a huge change. You hear a lot of talk about MOOCs and other applications of technology to teaching and learning but in some ways they're all a bit besides the point. The moment when the Internet becomes a crucial tool for learning about stuff is something that passed a long time ago. Want to learn how to tie a bow tie? Look it up on the Internet. Want to learn the difference between economic profit and accounting profit? Look it up on the Internet. Want to learn how to make a risotto? Look it up on the Internet. Putting more teaching and learning online is an interesting and important endeavor, but not of it speaks to the core crucial school function of certifying that the graduate is someone you might want to hire.

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The idea of a competency-based certification is that rather than saying "so and so has done such and such classes" you instead say "we're here to tell you that so-and-so has learned the following skills: _______"

One sell of a competency-based program is that in principle it could be faster and cheaper. I'd say the bigger deal is that it would allow more scope for entry and positional change in the educational sphere. The way it's structured now everything about higher education is very loaded on legacy prestige. The University of Texas is a more prestigous academic program than Texas Tech so a degree stamped "University of Texas" is more valuable than one stamped "Texas Tech" so more students will want to get the University of Texas degree so the University of Texas' prestige edge becomes further entrenched. Finding some way to improve its teaching doesn't really help Texas Tech much in this regard. The relative value of different college brands does shift over time, but it's an extremely slow process and the more parsimonious way of recruiting more applicants and brand power is to invest in football teams or nicer dorms.

In theory if you had a few credible competency-based programs out there, then differnt approaches to teaching could compete on the basis of being effective at imparting competency to students. In practice, I think it's all very challenging and there are good odds that USNH's initiative won't amount to much. But it's great to see someone trying and getting encouragement from the Department of Education.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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