Is competency-based education really the elixir higher ed needs to survive?
College leaders may have read his book “Students First: Equity, Access, and Opportunity in Higher Education” or seen Bryan Alexander’s interview with him on YouTube. President Paul LeBlanc has been a prominent voice in the sector, not only because of the innovative, cost-effective ways Southern New Hampshire University has continued to deliver education to the masses but also because of his stern take on its future.
At the ASU-GSV Summit last week, LeBlanc again expressed his worries in a session with College 101 CEO and Senior Harvard lecturer Stig Leschly in which he discussed why colleges and universities must rethink how they do business, how they build content and how they must reach more than just the upper crust of students.
“I am concerned about students from lower- and middle-class socioeconomic backgrounds who face an uncertain future,” LeBlanc said. “They need something different, better suited for their lives. We’re leaving too many people behind. This is bad for all of us. It’s bad for us as a country.”
LeBlanc pointed to an epidemic he called the “the worst Triple Crown you can have” – nearly half of students don’t complete their college studies; 40 million people have credits with zero degrees; and collectively, they have piled up more than $1.7 trillion in loan debts. He fears that many higher ed institutions have completely abandoned huge bases of students because of “rankings, status and mission creep.” But he proposes that there is a potential remedy – competency or outcomes-based education.
“Someone who graduates with a two-year associate’s degree, when they transfer to a four year school, loses on average 43% of credits. And who goes to community colleges?” LeBlanc, a first-generation student himself, asks rhetorically. “We’re going to make poor people take longer and charge them more? It’s obvious. We have to really rethink this system.”
LeBlanc said time, e.g. the credit hour, has been the biggest obstacle to sea change, along with a lack of understanding by accreditors and the comfortable lean by institutions to resist any upheaval. He admits that assessments in a CBE can be more challenging and that getting faculty and administration buy-in are difficult, but the alternatives might be more foreboding – dwindling enrollments, widening gaps in equity and failure to house learning models that actually prepare students for the future of work.
“In some ways, higher education is a faith-based initiative. If all of these inputs are there, we have faith that good things will happen on the other end,” he said. “What you’re really arguing for in competency-based education is to shift the spotlight to the outcomes and assess what students can actually do. When we shift the spotlight to outcomes, you unleash innovation.”
Changing the narrative
Just look at what Southern New Hampshire has done since LeBlanc took over a struggling institution in 2003, and what he referenced in his interview with Alexander – an increase of 40,000 students year-over-year to now 170,000 overall, 1,000 more hires from 2020 to 2021 while rising to $1 billion in operating capacity. Even with an increase in tuition cost over the past year, it is still half of what it was in 2019-20. And because of a multitude of shorter course options and with more flexibility, that can open a lot more doors to students on the go. His book contains several examples of institutions using CBE that work.
“We know how to do CBE well, and context right now matters a lot because employers are in a talent war,” LeBlanc said. “They’re looking for skills. The context is in our favor right now. And there are tools we can use. Demonstration projects are things that Congress can do. And they allow the Department of Education to waive the standard rules. We now have enough practice in place. One of the great impediments is the way we have to administer financial aid.”
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If the widespread acceptance of CBE occurred it not only could bring education across key areas to millions of potential learners – and in the process, revive enrollment figures for all students – but also could even bring back much-maligned areas such as the humanities, LeBlanc said, as the need for “human kinds of work” rises in a hyper-algorithm-driven society.
So what could a CBE strategy look like as opposed to a traditional model?
“I start with the end product,” he said. “What does that look like? How do I define it? What is the rubric that would tell me someone possess those skills? And then, what would the learning look like? I’m going to give you real-world simulations and hypotheticals you have to do at a workplace. That’s authentic assessment, as opposed to the world of assessment that’s so common in higher education – exams and tests and quizzes, which none of us do at work.”
Resistance to this formula is real, and LeBlanc describes the often stodgy approach to learning as “calcified” and “canonized” and potentially unwilling to budge. But if institutions can make trial runs to “create safe spaces to experiment [and] give people the latitude to break the rules,” there is a chance to move higher education forward. The key is to give these programs time for implementation and to not try to ram them through, putting faculty and other leaders in a place where they feel their whole systems are being uprooted and tossed away.
As for the theory that faculty buy-in might tough to overcome, LeBlanc said, “There is throughout higher education, a deep sense of calling. So many people come to the industry do it, because they want to educate, they want to work with students and want the world to be better.”
And holding onto the past will only fly for so long. Employers are calling for change and will demand more in the future. Traditional higher ed may not be able to keep up with that pace.
“We will still see accreditors,” LeBlanc said. “But increasingly, employers will be the accreditors, and they will be the arbiters. What can my people do? What can’t they do? What do they need to do tomorrow? We’re going to have to be really good at working with employers. Our program design is going to be really good at understanding competencies and know that our employers will sometimes struggle with that. The war for talent and 10 million unfilled jobs is going to drive quicker adoption of microcredential programs. It may finally allow us to start dropping the college degree requirement for jobs that don’t require college degrees.”