Council of Higher Education Accreditation President Judith Easton said the idea of increasing competency measures at universities is highly desirable, because "seat time doesn't tell you everything — it's not an outcome measure."
Easton feels decisions about restructuring outcome measures should rest with colleges and universities, not government.
"I understand the federal interest in credit hours, which are the basis for Pell grants to students amounting to billions of dollars," Easton said. "However, I think that federal interest is best served by holding us in the academic community accountable."
Variations in the missions of higher education institutions and the expense of examining every class at every college would make federal standardization of college learning intrusive, unwieldy and expensive, Easton said.
Colleges can address the credit hour problem by improving communication within faculties and between schools to make credit hours more meaningful and more easily transferrable, she said.
But Laitinen said the U.S. is a long way from having a big brother, centralized higher education system and could benefit from systemic changes.
"We need to do a better job of being transparent about what we want students to learn, and know and do after going to college," she said.
Laitinen's report applauds Western Governors University for its focus on outcomes instead of seat time.
"WGU is very clear about what students should know and how they measure it," Laitinen said. "They work with groups of employers to define competencies."
Students who enroll in WGU are assessed to establish what they already know. Course work is designed to fill in learning gaps, allowing the average student to complete a bachelor's degree in 30 months.
"The model works, and it's low-cost, which is important to everybody, Laitinen said.
It worked for Laub. She started testing for her master's program in October 2010. In 2011, she worked her way quickly through 25 competency units at WGU and passed rigorous exams to prove mastery of her subjects.
She earned a job teaching AP and IB chemistry at Clearfield High School in Clearfield that fall, and finished her final 15 credits for WGU while completing student teaching requirements on the job. This fall, she transferred to Davis High School in Kaysville, where she is a successful teacher of AP and honors chemistry classes.
"I felt like I was well-prepared for the rigors of the workplace," Laub said of her WGU education. "In some ways, the online classes were even more demanding. If your work is not up to standards, you have to fix it and resubmit it. You have to be thorough in everything, and do your best work at all points, and they were very involved projects."
Laitinen said the federal government could create incentives for colleges to move toward competency-based programs without being overly intrusive by tying student loan dollars to competency — paying for learning instead of time.
"I don't see a day in which the big, bad federal standards hold schools to one set of outcomes," she said. "I do hope we at least see some consistency, and that students, families, employers and taxpayers can know that a college degree means something other than that you sat in a classroom for four years."
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