Competency-based education has fans, detractors

Western Governors among schools offering programs

By J.K. Wall

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 24 2012 7:35 p.m. MST

Julie Laub helps her student, A.J. Watts during an AP Chemistry class at Davis High School in Kaysville on Friday, Oct. 26, 2012. Laub earned her master's degree through Western Governors University, which uses competency-based assessments instead of credit hours to measure learning.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

INDIANAPOLIS — Mary Carney spent just two years and $10,000 to earn both a bachelor's and master's degree in nursing, then landed a job paying 65 percent more than her old job.

She did it at Western Governors University, an online-only college that came to Indiana in 2010 using a concept called competency-based education.

With Indiana and the nation as a whole trying desperately to boost the numbers of adults with postsecondary degrees, without bankrupting either public coffers or private bank accounts, the pace and parsimony of WGU's competency-based model may be a recipe made to order.

"We're looking for ways to increase the capacity of the system. That's why I think this is a really important concept and getting more attention now," Jamie Merisotis, CEO of Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education, told the Indianapolis Business Journal.

Competency-based education, according to WGU's model, allows students to complete courses as fast as they want and to take as many courses as they want per semester — all for the same per-semester fee. Students earn credit only if they pass an end-of-course assessment.

But whether the low-cost, high-speed model of WGU comes to influence the rest of higher education is an open question.

Many think the increasing availability of competency-based educational options — combined with cost pressures and employer demands for higher quality — will force most universities to adopt competency-based techniques.

Some institutions, such as Ivy Tech Community College, are adopting it in a limited way in their programs. So are schools outside of Indiana — such as DePaul University, Northern Arizona University and Southern New Hampshire University.

But few traditional schools in Indiana have plans to adopt competency-based education in a way that allows students to progress toward degrees on their own time lines. Such schools as Indiana University, Indiana State University and even for-profit educators like Harrison College say they plan to stick closely to their models that require specific amounts of time in class to graduate.

Lumina has set a goal for the nation, which has been mimicked by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, for 60 percent of all adults to have a postsecondary credential by the year 2025. Only about 33 percent of Hoosier adults have a postsecondary degree.

Getting there will require colleges and universities as a whole to operate far more efficiently. That's why Gov. Mitch Daniels, who sponsored WGU's arrival in Indiana, has also pushed the Legislature to make more funding for all Indiana public colleges and universities hinge on their costs per graduate.

For the past two decades, costs have soared at Indiana's colleges while graduation rates have been stubbornly low. That has left nearly 750,000 Hoosiers adults with some college credits — and the student loan debt that goes with it — but no degree.

It's that pool of students that WGU is aiming for. Students like Carney.

She earned an associate's degree in nursing in 1980 at age 25. She planned to go on for a bachelor's degree, but her husband lost his job. So she worked for the next three decades, as well as raising and homeschooling four children.

At age 55, she decided it was now or never for getting her bachelor's degree. She researched every school within driving distance of her home in Lebanon.

Nearly all of them would apply her associate's degree — earned at Purdue University's Calumet campus — toward a bachelor's degree. And nearly all of them offered courses at nights or online, to make them convenient for working adults. Some even offered accelerated programs, which crammed more coursework into a shorter time period.

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