1 Reason Competency-Based Degrees Will Hurt Disadvantaged Students

They will pay more to earn their degree.

I think competency-based learning is a good idea. the fundamental principle is that we don’t measure an earned degree in how much time one spends on course content. The measure of success is in the evidence that a student has met specific competencies that the curriculum requires.

But who is going to pay for that cost savings?

The slower performing student will pay more for the degree and thus help lower college costs.

Currently, a student will pay for the length of time a course takes to complete, but the measure of completion is in the grade the student gets. The grade is a measure of competency, but the cost of the course is based on time. This means that students who can succeed in that course more quickly may be spending money on time wasted that they could be spending on other activities to meet degree goals. That amounts to a lot of wasted money.

What we have built into the system to correct the time issue are transfer credits, testing out of courses to avoid wasting money on courses one does not need. Prior learning assessment is now making headway to give students credit for competencies achieved outside of the normal higher education curriculum structure.

However, transfer credits are rarely equally applied as one institution may not accept credits from another. What this does to the student is that he or she has to pay for the same course twice. Moreover, even if a student tests out of a course, it is no guarantee that the student can bypass some credit hours in order to achieve the degree. Again, the price is based on time and not competencies.

It is easy to see how a competency based curriculum can solve the problem. Rather than pay for the time spent in a degree, pay for the competency achieved. It is not so much “teaching to the test” as offering better assessment tools to measure a students actual abilities. In fact, it could result in less teaching to the test since it would require more “real-world” or authentic assessment. The fundamental question is: Can the student demonstrate the competency that the degree requires? If so, then he or she can move on to the next one. Shorter time; more learning. As Dr. Robert Mendenhall, President of Western Governor’s University writes:

Rather than enrolling in courses that always take a set amount of time to complete, students complete courses as soon as they demonstrate mastery of the subject matter through an assessment–a test, paper, project, presentation. This allows students to accelerate their time to degree.

The logic seems straight forward. Competency based learning can shorten the time to complete a degree and thus reduce the cost.

Not so fast.

This strategy also means that students who will take longer to complete a degree will in effect be punished for taking longer to achieve competencies. If a student comes from an under-performing high school district, has a learning disability that requires accommodations, or simply will take longer to achieve the same competencies, that degree will cost more. The more advantaged student will always pay less for the same degree.

The system already works this way a little. There is a set cost for the education with different aid packages. Grants and scholarships offset costs for high performing students and disadvantaged students alike. There is a certain re-distribution of wealth that happens. To be sure, this is not without significant problems. It is an imperfect system to say the least. But the idea is sound: Find creative ways to make higher education equitable and accessible to all. This is one of the holy grails in American higher education that is unique to the system. That goal is getting more expensive to the point that it is self-defeating. More advantaged students are still getting greater access and succeeding at a faster clip.

Competency based degrees may help the cost for some students, but it can also hurt affordability to others. We need something to leverage that cost. As states continue to cut funding, the access gap could accelerate with this way of granting aid. There will have to be outside sources of revenue to balance the equation. A redistribution of wealth needs to happen to make this an equitable system. While a higher performing student should not pay for more time that necessary to complete a degree, neither should a disadvantaged student. We have to stop placing the financial burden of the higher education system on the backs of the students.

Everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed and live a happy and successful life.

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2 thoughts on “1 Reason Competency-Based Degrees Will Hurt Disadvantaged Students

  1. I think that you are somewhat conflating two very different things: “competency-based degrees” and “competency-based learning.” The difference is that, in the one, the aim is credentialing and the focus is assessing competencies, while in the other the aim is developing competencies and the focus is on developing competencies. What makes this a problem is that, if the goal is to demonstrate but not to develop competencies, then students will do just that, learn to demonstrate competencies that they have not in fact developed.

    This is possible because most assessments do not actually get at how well students do or do not understand, can or cannot perform, etc., but rather get at some other indirect measure that, in the best circumstances, imperfectly suggests a level of competency but that, under assessment conditions, become to sole focus. In other words, tests are usually designed to be “gamed.” Which is why, in the famous example of Eric Mazur’s students, students could pass physics exams–demonstrating that they have masted the competency of solving the sorts of physics questions asked–but did not actually understand basic physics concepts. They just memorized the required formulas.

    We certainly need to move toward competency-based learning. But if we adopt an approach to competencies-based credentialing that allows students to circumvent the time and effort required to actually develop competencies, we will probably have some students get through college quicker but will probably not have many students learn more.


    Paul T. Corrigan
    Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

    • Thanks for commenting, Paul. You’re right. I did conflate the two ideas. But that is because the movement that the article to which I am pointing does so. I think that is the problem. A move towards competencies presents many problems, one of which is how access to higher education and how we will understand aid to lower performing students will change. The difference you note seems to be coming to a head with many policy makers and I am not sure that is a good idea – at least the way that they have been talking about it.

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