One trend that seeks to address some of the needs of adult prospective students is what's known as competency-based education, or CBE. It's become a buzzword in higher education, though there is no clear consensus on its definition among the institutions that provide it.
We've used "competency-based" as a way to describe any model or approach to higher education that measures how much students have learned other than through tracking the amount of time they have spent in a seat. (While experts agree that seat time - or the "credit hour" - is not an optimal measure of student learning, it's still the only universal measure we have.)
Competency-based education has the potential for being especially beneficial to older students returning to college. As NPR education writer Anya Kamenetz puts it, "the major argument in favor of competency-based programs is that they will offer nontraditional students a more direct, more affordable path to a degree. This argument is especially made on behalf of older students who can earn college credits based on prior workplace or life experience."
CBE programs do seem to be attracting a specific demographic. In a report released this week, author Robert Kelchen found that 9 out of 10 competency-based students are older than 25.
Perhaps the greatest selling point for older students is the freedom CBE allows them to pursue a degree at their own pace and on their own schedule. In research we conducted recently among older prospective college students, nearly half said that it was essential that the school they chose have a flexible schedule, offering classes in the evenings and on the weekend.
These older prospective students were also worried about how their academic responsibilities would fit into their lives. Forty-two percent said it was absolutely essential for their prospective school to have programs of study set up so students can graduate quickly. In fact, being able to balance work and family responsibilities with the demands of school was tied with taking on too much debt as their greatest worry.
They're justified in their concern. In earlier research we conducted among students who failed to complete college, having to work was the top reason these students gave for having left school.
Competency-based education holds real promise for meeting the needs of older prospective students. Still, it's no panacea and is best viewed as one choice or approach. And there are very serious questions about competency-based education that are still being answered, including fundamental ones about what constitutes high-quality when it comes to CBE programs.
In order to find solutions to these issues, Public Agenda is helping facilitate the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN). Through this work, we are helping field-leader institutions with the most mature CBE programs work together on common challenges to building high-quality CBE models capable of meeting the needs of learners from all backgrounds. Surfacing and articulating shared standards of practice to advance the quality conversation is a key goal of C-BEN members.
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