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Higher Ed Transformation
New Degrees Challenge "Time Served" Model

The University of Michigan is now on course to become one of the first public higher education institutions to offer a degree that can be achieved not through credit hours but on demonstrated proficiency in the subjects studied. According to Inside Higher Ed, Michigan’s regional accreditor has just approved a competency-based Master’s of Health Professions Education. The program is designed to give health professionals training in “carry[ing] out the full range of responsibilities of a scholarly educator-leader.”

This is a small but significant step toward one of the most important higher education reforms currently on offer, alongside MOOCs. NPR provides some excellent background, noting that the current system measures “not how much you’ve learned, but how long you’ve spent trying to learn it.” More: 

The conventions of the credit hour, the semester and the academic year were formalized in the early 1900s. Time forms the template for designing college programs, accrediting them and — crucially — funding them using federal student aid.

But in 2013, for the first time, the Department of Education took steps to loosen the rules.

The new idea: Allow institutions to get student-aid funding by creating programs that directly measure learning, not time. Students can move at their own pace. The school certifies — measures — what they know and are able to do.

This kind of approach shifts higher education from what we at the AI have called a “time served” to a “stuff learned” model, allowing students to learn what they need to learn and then graduate without spending unnecessary time in a program or racking up unnecessary debt. According to NPR, the DoE attempt to “loosen the rules” means that as many as 350 schools nationwide can now try out competency-based degrees without risking their eligibility for federal financial aid. Read the whole thing for an overview of the current status of those programs and their prospects for success. The more schools have the freedom to grant degrees on the basis of proficiency rather than “time served,” the more relevant to the demands of today’s economy higher education will become.

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  • FriendlyGoat

    People are going to need to be told what they are expected to know before they are tested on it. Okay, that sentence sounds so basic as to be sorta stupid.

    But really, this is going to come down to knowing what the test(s) are and “learning to them”. What else could it possibly be?

    • Mary Wilbur

      Isn’t that method of teaching being used in elementary, middle and high schools to prepare students for the state proficiency exams?

      • FriendlyGoat

        Yes, and we seem to hear a lot of complaints about that—-but even more complaints if schools graduate people without proficiency-exam capability. But, for a bachelors or masters degree based on competency, somebody has to define the expectations and disclose them in advance, perhaps somewhat like professional exams such as CPA or legal bar exams.

        I got an accounting degree decades ago and was required to have some PE credits and a touch of fine arts. How is that measured within competency in accounting? (Or, as I suspected at the time, were my PE and fine art requirements superfluous and silly?)

        • Corlyss

          “as I suspected at the time, were my PE and fine art requirements superfluous and silly?”

          Well, the PE might have convinced both of us that exercise was more valuable medicine than just about anything else you could do cheaply. I certainly didn’t learn that lesson till I was in my early 60s. Hell of a time to have to pick it up. As for the fine arts, you mean you don’t give it any props for making you a more well-rounded person? That is what a “liberal arts” education is supposed to do for the victim, er, student.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Gee, I never thought you believed I was a well-rounded person, since I’m a lib and all. Must have been the PE and the fine arts.

            Seriously, when I went to (state) college, it wasn’t nearly so expensive. I don’t know what keeps young people today from going into absolute revolt—borrowing money to take courses they don’t need and don’t want.

    • S H

      A: I think this is good. B: I’m not sure this is new btw… I thought you could submit a thesis to a university you didn’t attend 100 something years ago (at least I read about people doing it in Europe) and have it considered for a degree. 20 something years ago you could take the bar exam (in California) to be a lawyer w/o going to law school.. et cetera. This demand for credit hours is big waste of time for bright people who are willing to read the books, listen to the lectures, and write the papers… in one year instead of four…IMO.

  • GS

    About 614 years ago Duke Louis of Orleans was lamenting the prevalence of “people of low degree and doubtful birth”. Since his times the things have not improved.
    If a degree is to mean that its holder is a professional, then the full list of the knowledge necessary for it could easily fill not 4 but 5 years of a full-time study, at least in the non-joke study fields. Of course, such [vocational, as opposed to “liberal arts”] approach would necessitate a thorough weeding out of the “filler” courses, which are a joke anyway.

  • Jane the Actuary

    This is excellent progress. A bit lower in the academic ladder, I would also like to see more opportunities for undergraduates to get credit for subject material they’ve learned at advanced high school courses or through self-study or a MOOC, besides the current monopoly of the AP test, and without any requirement that they pay the full per-credit-hour cost of “regular” tuition, but instead only for the cost of the time it takes the university staff to evaluate their knowledge/ability/skills.

  • Corlyss

    “noting that the current system measures “not how much you’ve learned, but how long you’ve spent trying to learn it.” “

    • Texas Mike

      Engineering has been practicing a version of this for years. There is a Fundamentals of Engineering exam that many students take at the end of their senior year or shortly after graduation. This says “I know the basics of engineering, science and math.” After practicing as an engineer for several years, there are domain-specific exams required to obtain your Professional Engineer license. Having your P.E. license says “I know how to apply specific engineering skills in my field (electrical, mechanical, civil, etc.) to produce a safe and reliable product.” I can see universities offering similarly designed proficiency tests to confer an advanced degree. Research professors will hate it, though. They love having low-cost grad students to do their research, and this threatens their gravy train.

    • larryj8

      “How’s any kind of reliable standard to be created against which “how much you’ve learned” is to be measured? Why don’t we just print diplomas and hand them out regardless of what the student has learned?”
      Isn’t that what colleges are doing now? Ask employers how difficult it is to find college graduates who can write a coherent paper or perform essential tasks without constant hand-holding. Too many graduates have a very expensive piece of paper and a lot of debt but precious few skills of value.
      It will require a lot of thought and work to apply the “what you know” concept to degrees at large and some will be easier than others. In the computer technology area, there are already many certification tests that can demonstrate a level of knowledge about specific areas. For engineering fields, proof of working on and contributing to projects is a step in the right direction, along with knowledge about managing projects and engineering best practices. In medical fields like nursing, students can demonstrate essential patient care skills.
      This at least is a starting point for discussion. The point is that employers would have some confidence that the job applicant has proven essential knowledge related to their claimed area of expertise. As things stand now, many if not most diplomas prove nothing about an applicant’s job worthiness.

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