Competency-based education is one of those big ideas about how to reshape education that’s been around for a while. And fans of the approach say this time of change occasioned by the pandemic is a good moment to give it a closer look.
The basic idea of competency-based education, or CBE, is this: What if the way to get a degree or certificate was to prove to a college that you’ve learned the required knowledge and skills. It wouldn’t matter exactly how, or where you learned the knowledge—or competencies. Colleges would be in the business of certifying what students know, and giving them the coaching and materials needed to fill in any gaps to earn the credential.
For this week’s EdSurge podcast we checked in with a longtime proponent of competency based education: Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University. And he lays out his latest thoughts about the approach in his new book, “Students First: Equity, Access and Opportunity in Higher Education.”
LeBlanc himself is a first generation college student who has long experimented with ideas to help expand access to higher education. And over the years he has led Southern New Hampshire University to become a mega-university online to serve students who can’t get to its traditional campus, with more than 130,000 online students.
He has also brought Competency Based Education to his own university, in a program at Southern New Hampshire called College for America. But he admits that his CBE experiment has not grown as fast as he’d hoped. And that’s because moving to this model is a really big, and really hard change for colleges. But he thinks the approach could grow, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic, and he has a proposal on how to get there.
EdSurge: In your book you say that the biggest challenge to competency-based education is that it requires more from everyone in the system—professors and administrators, but also from students. What did you mean by that?
Paul LeBlanc: If you think about higher education today, people joke that “D” still stands for degree. We let students slide by all the time, and we’re graduating people with, in many instances, not a lot of clarity about what they know, what they can do. The transcript is a black box for most external people. If I’m hiring somebody and I say, ‘Oh, you took managerial accounting.’ I can infer, maybe, what you studied, but I don’t actually know how good you are, what skills you have, what actual knowledge you have.
[Take] nurses, for example. We graduate nurses and we know what that looks like. They’ve got to take a national licensure exam, their state board.
But if you talk to the heads of clinical staffs of healthcare systems, they will tell you that nurses are not ready to hit the floor when they graduate. They would say, ‘They don’t actually have the skills we need them to have in order for us to put them to work.’
I think part of what’s really powerful about this model [of competency-based education] is that it forces us to be much clearer about the claims we make.
You say in the book that addressing the issue only at colleges is like cleaning up pollution downstream while the factory upstream continues to put chemicals in the river. What changes do you recommend for K-12 to better prepare students for the competency-based college that you’re advocating for?
On one level they have the same issue. Which is that they’re looking at progress in a sort of structured, sequential way, which has to do with what age you are.
We know that the same set of grade inflation [happens]. We know that 50 percent of students arrive on college campuses, not actually ready to do college level math or English. So it will lay bare. It will shed a light on the issues of preparation. So it’s going to force greater rigor on K-12.
And you do have K-12 systems including here in my home state of New Hampshire that are moving to competency-based frameworks. So the other thing this allows of course, are kids to move faster or slower through the system.
I think it was one of the virtues and everyone loves the stories of speed—you know, the person who finishes the two-year associate degree in just one year. We have those stories. But I like to tell the stories of the student who took a year and a half to get through the writing competency. And the reason I like to tell that story is that when they’ve finished, I can stand behind the claim I make that the student actually will be able to write. Maybe not like Hemingway, but they’ll be able to do the kind of workplace writing that we define as a core competency in a given program. And that’s what employers love about competency-based education. It gives us a common language, but it also gives them the assurance [that students have the skills needed].
For the complete interview, listen to this week’s EdSurge Podcast.