College, on Your Own (Chronicle)

By Dan Berrett
July 14, 2014

Competency-based education can help motivated students. But critics say it’s no panacea.

ichele L. Pollock felt like she was moving through college in slow motion. In seven years, she had gotten about halfway through her bachelor’s degree.

But recently she’s been racing forward, racking up 50 credits in just eight months at Northern Arizona University, more than most full-time students earn in three semesters. She’s done it while holding down a full-time job coordinating clinical trials at a medical-research facility in Tucson. She has no classmates, no classroom, no lectures, and no professor-led discussions with fellow students.

And she’s the model for how competency-based learning could transform higher education.

For decades, competency programs have served a niche market of adults seeking credentials to help them advance in their careers. Now, they are attracting broad interest and making forays into the liberal arts. Competency programs are going mainstream.

The approach has emerged as the educational disruption of the moment because it appears to solve many of the challenges facing higher education. Colleges’ core market of traditional-aged students is declining, costs keep rising, a national campaign is pushing for increasing the number of graduates, and the value of a degree and what students are learning are under growing scrutiny.

The buzz among policy makers, think tanks, and foundations is spreading to colleges, which see competency programs as a way to tap, at lower cost and with greater efficiency, into a growing market of adult students whose lives don’t follow rigid semesters.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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