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Policy Initiative Spotlight: New Paths to a Diploma

by Steven J. Markovich
March 29, 2013

A student reads on the campus of Columbia University in New York (Mike Segar/Courtesy Reuters). A student reads on the campus of Columbia University in New York (Mike Segar/Courtesy Reuters).


To most Americans, the typical college experience involves learning from a professor in a lecture hall and spending a set duration of time in class over several semesters. But that could soon change. Almost ten percent of last year’s graduates of Thomas Edison State College (TESC) earned their degree without setting foot on campus or even taking a course offered by the college, because the school uses a competency-based education model.

At TESC, course credit is granted not only for transferring coursework and attending in-person or online courses, but also for demonstrating knowledge of a subject by passing a standardized exam, an approach known as competency-based education.  TESC is New Jersey’s second largest public college—after Rutgers—and was founded in 1972 to give adults greater flexibility in pursuing a degree. Today, the school is providing a way for adults to consolidate scattered educational history and bridge gaps on a path to a bachelor’s degree.

Competency-based education helps motivated adults complete degrees and gain new skills and certifications at lower cost, over less time, and with less disruption to their lives. Educational attainment is one of many factors that goes into a person’s earning potential.  A Georgetown study found that the median lifetime earnings for someone with some college but without a degree was $1.5 million; this is higher than the $1.3 million median for a high school graduate, but far less than the $2.2 million median for holders of a bachelor’s degree.  Appropriate data are not available to determine how much of that $700,000 spread is likely to be recovered by graduates of competency-based programs, and would depend upon factors such as employers’ acceptance of degrees from these institutions.  But there is the potential for a substantial benefit for adult students, particularly if costs can be held low.

The New York Times described one adult student who completed her degree by earning fifty-four credits in fourteen weeks through multiple equivalency exams at a cost of $5,300 for books and fees. As George A. Pruitt, the college’s president explained in that article: “We don’t care how or where the student learned, whether it was from spending three years in a monastery…as long as that learning is documented by some reliable assessment technique.”

That approach is attracting more students. Enrollment at Thomas Edison doubled over the past ten years—a higher growth rate than all other New Jersey state colleges and public universities. Competency-based education is also offered by a few other accredited schools: Connecticut’s Charter Oak State College, Excelsior College in upstate New York, and the online-based Western Governors University, a private nonprofit institution that also has partnerships with three states and has announced plans with two more states.

More well-known state universities are creating competency-based degree programs.  Last year, Northern Arizona University announced a partnership with Pearson. The University of Wisconsin (UW) announced it would create a flexible degree program following a competency-based model, with coursework and assessments overseen by faculty and staff of the UW system. Degree programs this fall include an associate of arts and science, and a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nursing.

Notably, competency-based degree programs allow students to leverage free online courses—such as those profiled last May in a Policy Initiative Spotlight—offered by elite universities, even though the course providers do not directly grant credit. By completing free online courses, students can gain the knowledge necessary to pass equivalency exams. This could potentially undermine future plans for universities to monetize their online offerings. As CFR’s James Lindsay explained, there still is not a solid business model for online courses. But online education continues to evolve: some public universities plan to offer credit for a free introductory course as a recruitment tool, while California’s legislature sees them as a way to relieve a shortage of seats in core classes.

Concerns remain over whether competency-based education provides the same quality of education.  One concern is that strong test-takers could earn passing grades on an equivalency exam without having a truly thorough command of the material.  A reliance on online education troubles some, especially in light of a recent report that raised concern that online education could widen achievement gaps across demographic groups.

Still, the authors of that study concluded that “although many students face challenges in adapting to online learning, online coursework represents an indispensable strategy in postsecondary education, as it improves flexibility for both students and institutions and expands educational opportunities among students who are balancing school with work and family demands.”  Competency-based education and online courses both make it easier for adult students to enhance and demonstrate their knowledge—and at a lower cost.

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  • Posted by William Stewart

    There is an estimated 34 million adults in the U.S. who have some college but no degree. For this population, a competency-based program may be the best path to earning a college degree and achieving the economic benefits that both the individual and nation would receive as a result.

    My institution, Excelsior College, was founded in 1971 by the New York State Board of Regents on the simple, yet powerful philosophy that “what you know is more important than where or how you learned it” as espoused by then President of The University of the State of New York Ewald B. Nyquist. A corollary to this is that demonstration of subject matter mastery must be through academically sound means and this is what Excelsior has been doing for more than 40 years.

    Continuously accredited by Middle States since 1977, today Excelsior (originally known as the Regents External Degree Program and later Regents College) is a private, nonprofit college that has helped 150,000 working adults demonstrate their competence and finish the degrees that they had started. As noted by the author, a competency-based approach can be a much less expensive means to a degree. This also begs the question: Why does higher education insist on requiring students to repeat course work that they have already completed as evidenced by transcripts from other institutions?

    A broader acceptance of transfer credit can significantly reduce the cost of a college degree. In the 2011-2012 academic year alone, Excelsior accepted in transfer more than 618,000 hours of undergraduate credit from faculty approved sources. Based on Excelsior’s undergraduate credit hour cost of $355, the economic value of the credit it accepted in transfer was approximately $219 million. Excelsior’s acceptance of these valid credits toward its degree requirements means these students, their families and benefactors – including federal and state sponsored grant and scholarship programs – did not have to pay for them a second time. Excelsior turned these credits into “working assets” for its students, removing a potentially significant barrier to degree completion and helping them to achieve their educational goals.

    More recently, Excelsior’s faculty have identified open education resources, including MOOCs, that students can use to prepare for its nationally recognized credit-by-examination program, Excelsior College Examinations. Using these free, online resources as study material, students then take the exams in secure PearsonVue centers across the country to earn college credit for what they have learned.

    This is another important aspect of the competency-based approach. It focuses on the outcomes of learning rather than the process of learning. The late President Nyquist envisioned this back in 1971. Excelsior College has been fulfilling his vision ever since and it is heartening to see higher education opening up to his foresight.

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