The Competency-Based Approach

“Today an employer at a minimum wants [graduates with] job-related skills or training, plus critical thinking and communication abilities,” wrote Champion Mitchell, a member of the University of North Carolina system’s Board of Governors, in a recent Pope Center feature. Mitchell, a former attorney and CEO who has employed thousands of workers, continued: “In many cases, employers will not be satisfied with even this combination and want to see actual experience in the field.” 

Mitchell’s employment-centric concerns are shared by many of North Carolina’s higher education policymakers, especially those at the community college level. The goal of providing courses that meet employers’ changing demands dominates discussions about higher education these days and informs many community college system initiatives. 

For example, NCReady4Work attempts to enhance “workforce development” by streamlining collaborations between community colleges, regional employers and state agencies such as the department of commerce and the Commission on Workforce Development. The Business for Education Success and Transformation North Carolina (BEST NC), composed of state business leaders, aims at boosting the regional economy by improving public education outcomes at the K-12 and post-secondary levels. And then there is Carolina’s Customized Training Program (CTP), an effort to train potential employees for the unique needs of local businesses. Run by the state’s community colleges, the CTP has been roundly criticized as a waste of money. 

These repeated attempts to align job-training with jobs suggest that the initiatives are not all that successful. That is one reason why I was so refreshed after attending a November 14 State Board of Community Colleges luncheon. Instead of hearing the “jobs, jobs, jobs” mantra repeated ad infinitum, I was treated to a presentation about the “competency-based education model.” 

Sharon Morrissey, senior vice president and chief academic officer for the N.C. community college system, and Michael Horn, an official at Central Piedmont Community College, informed the board members—who represent the state’s various community colleges—about the model. As Morrissey emphasized later in an interview with the Pope Center, “We’re just at the conversation stage, trying to gather research and look at what’s happening in other states.”

Traditionally, college students, whether at the community college level or at four-year universities, have been expected to earn a prescribed number of credit hours by attending 16-week courses over multiple semesters. Students’ post-graduation “competency” is indicated by the fact that they “did their time” and finished the required coursework and, of course, by the letter grades they receive. 

With the competency-based model, however, the focal point is not the time spent in the classroom, but, rather, tangible evidence of learning. Students progress by demonstrating that they have mastered a particular skill or collection of skills, in some cases by applying their acquired skills and knowledge to new situations.

For example, Delaware County Community College in Pennsylvania expects its graduates to achieve numerous competencies. Eleven of these are broad “college competencies”—general skills such as being “proficient in mathematics, reading,  writing, and speech communication” or being “able to use decision making processes to solve problems.” Other competencies are specific to the discipline or to individual courses. 

Similarly, Capella University offers self-paced undergraduate and graduate programs in which students don’t earn letter grades. Rather, they earn either “distinguished,” “proficient,” “basic,” or “nonperformance” distinctions after completing modules based on actual problems and scenarios they’ll encounter in their respective fields. (A recent New York Times article provides an in-depth primer on this system, as well as case studies from universities that have implemented it.) 

At the state board luncheon, Morrissey and Horn told the remarkable story of Zach Sherman. The 21-year-old is the first graduate of College for America, a completely competency-based college founded by Southern New Hampshire University. Sherman’s studies were divided into “clusters” that focused on areas such as information technology and writing. He raced through the program, completing an associate degree in general studies in just over three months. 

Some of the board members appeared shocked by the Sherman anecdote—because of uncertainty about the depth of Sherman’s learning and perhaps because three-month degrees could possibly devastate community colleges. 

A fledgling national organization, the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) may be poised to allay Morrissey’s and the board members’ concerns. C-BEN is the brainchild of the Lumina Foundation and Public Agenda, a non-profit organization based in New York. Its aim is to educate skeptical community college presidents, faculty members, and policymakers at all levels about how competency-based models can work. Backing them up at the federal level is the Department of Education, which has expressed openness to the model.

C-BEN representatives have started a dialogue with regional accrediting agencies. They’ve acknowledged, as a 2012 Council for Adult and Experiential Learning report indicates, that “existing policies, regulatory language, and stated rules may serve as barriers to institutions interested in developing new programs.” 

Clearly, while North Carolina’s community college officials are intrigued by the competency-based approach, they recognize its disruptive potential. N.C. community college system president Scott Ralls told me via e-mail that the competency-based approach would complement many existing technical and vocational programs. But he also wrote that the model “implies potential significant changes in funding structures, accreditation, etc., and will take much discussion and planning across our colleges and with State leaders.”

The model is not entirely new, Morrissey later said in an interview. It would continue some of the community college’s previous work, like the Code Green Super Curriculum Improvement Project. That project, developed in 2010, reorganized a variety of technical programs so that students can progress in a step-by-step manner toward practical degrees.

Competency-based education offers more than progress toward specific expertise, however. If properly designed, it would give students more choices. It would enable brighter and motivated students to bypass the doldrums that can accompany traditional 16-week semesters, while less motivated students could work at their preferred pace without developing gaps in their knowledge. And instead of sending employers resumes loaded with generalities and fluffy hyperbole, students would be able to show specific skills derived from each class or “module.” 

The model could also dramatically reduce tuition for students, as Duke Cheston explained in this 2011 Pope Center article highlighting the innovations of Western Governors University. (WGU is heavily invested in the competency-based approach, although it still operates within the credit-hour system.)

As Morrissey and Horn explained to the board members, competency-based education goes against the grain of higher education’s longstanding “seat time” focus. It is a radical way to assess student performance. It is potentially disruptive of the status quo. 

But, in addition to its disruptive qualities, it appears to be a user-friendly, intuitive, and commonsensical way to learn. And it could provide employers with a more comprehensive and objective method for identifying top job applicants, something that wouldn’t go unnoticed by the Champion Mitchells of the world.