January 29, 2015


What Older Students Worry About and How New Thinking on Higher Ed May Help


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.


You can keep abreast of CBE, the activity of C-BEN and other issues going on in higher education by updating your subscriber info here.


New on Rebooting Democracy:
The Philosophical Challenge

This week on Rebooting Democracy blog, our co-founder Dan Yankelovich argues that in order to solve our nation's political problems, we must first rebuild the public's trust.

Read the full post here.


"The American public knows something is wrong. For decades a majority of the public has been telling pollsters that the country is 'on the wrong track.' When we probe into what this means, people state that they don't feel they have a voice in shaping the decisions that most impact their lives. They experience this lack of voice as a betrayal of the promise of democracy."

-- Dan Yankelovich

Engaging Ideas

A collection of recent stories and reports that sparked consideration on ways to make progress on divisive issues.

(Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, American Institutes for Research)
In this blog post, recommendations for designing educator evaluations and a metaphor of "orchestra conductor" to describe principal leadership.  

(The Hechinger Report)
Several new research papers suggest that U.S. teacher quality never declined as badly as is widely thought. One example, a study of new teachers in New York State, found that the number of new teachers with the top third of SAT scores had risen dramatically. And fewer than 20 percent of new teachers scored in the bottom third. 

(Campus Technology)
At the online-only Excelsior College, the average age of students is 38. President John Ebersole explains four things the college has learned in helping adults earn degrees. 

(UNC School of Government Blog)
This post outlines three applications that are already commonly used for two-way communication that governments, nonprofits and institutions can use to engage their stakeholders.  

(Healthcare Dive)
David Newman, Ph.D., J.D., the executive director of the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI) explains that while price transparency has its merits, "but in and of itself, it's not the silver bullet."

(Wall Street Journal)
In a similar vein, Drew Altman of the Kaiser Family Foundation writes that although price information would empower savvier shopping, there are limits to how price-sensitive people are when they face big bills.


Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate divisive, complex issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on K-12 and higher education reform, health care, federal and local budgets, energy and immigration. Find Public Agenda online at

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