What Is Competency-Based Education, and Why Does It Matter?

The curricula for competency-based programs as a whole are purpose-built to prepare students for industry and careers as they evolve
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In higher education today, only two things are certain: change is coming, and nobody knows what that change will look like.

At College for America, we are one year into what we believe will be a large part of that change: competency-based education. We apparently are not alone. A couple of weeks ago, Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell announced the continuation of a program designed to support student-focused, outcomes-based higher education--largely focusing on competency-based education. And just last month, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation to advance competency-based education.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, it is as revolutionary as it is simple. Currently, education is measured by completing a specified number of classes, in person or online, and a set of uniform assignments. Generally, such programs have a defined duration: one year, two years, four years, etc. Competency-based education does away with the defined duration and credit hours, replacing time with mastery. Not all students study at the same rate--and some have already acquired a range of knowledge and skills--so competency-based education offers an "each to their own" model for degree completion. For a good primer, check out PBS NewsHour's segment on competency-based credits, which aired on Monday, kicking off its weeklong series, "Rethinking College."

One of the advantages of this model is that competency-based education is results-driven and can respond to the needs of industry, while still upholding academic standards. This approach works remarkably well for industries like insurance and healthcare in which the competencies needed have rapidly evolved due to the Affordable Care Act. Our students can be confident in knowing that mastering 120 competencies in our associate's program for nonclinical healthcare workers will give them the skill sets they need to excel in a range of careers across healthcare.

But what of industries that change virtually week to week, such as the growing, evolving media industry and field of communications? Data growth, social, and mobile technologies ensure continuous change in the communications field.

After extensive research into the field for our bachelor's degree in communications, College for America recently released a report identifying a number of common skills and activities that span a range of high-growth, communications-critical occupations. These professions--including sales manager, public relations specialist, and human resources manager--share skills such as communicating with a team, making decisions and solving problems, and thinking creatively.

For example, a fundraiser today needs to be able to capture the attention of, and write articulate messages to, a targeted group of donors. And a workforce trainer needs to be fluent in a range of communications channels to reach employees in the way they want to be reached, including through videos, presentations, social media --and whatever channel comes next. These vast, multimodal communications skills can be incredibly useful across a broad spectrum of jobs. So there's a sort of blending of responsibilities and skills that once essentially belonged to specific professions but are now all mixing together.

But communications education has been around for a long time, so how could competency-based education offer anything new here? What we found after talking extensively to industry experts is that traditional curricula is producing a workforce armed with the knowledge of today's media--but not the competencies to adapt to the media of tomorrow.

So as with all our programs, we started developing the curriculum with the end in mind: Where do our students need to be when they leave? What competencies do they need to master to succeed in the workforce immediately after graduation and in the future? When we look through a competency lens, we quickly hone in on a directed, clear, and effective course of study for a broad range of communications occupations.

It's this clarity and purpose that allows us to breathe easy on behalf of our students, even knowing that change is coming, and that nobody knows what it will look like. The curricula for competency-based programs as a whole are purpose-built to prepare students for industry and careers as they evolve.

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