The University of Texas is planning the most ambitious competency-based degree program yet. In degrees of that kind, students graduate not on the basis of credit hours or classes taken, but on the basis of skills demonstrated in relevant areas. Liked the one offered at the University of Michigan, U-T’s program will launch first in the medical sciences. The first competency-based degree will be a BA in biomedical sciences (that’s a departure from Michigan, whose program right now will only start with a master’s degree). But the university has plans to expand on that, according to Inside Higher Ed:
The new, competency-based curriculum will involve multiple institutions around the state, system officials said, with a track that eventually will stretch from high school, or even middle school, all the way to medical school. […]Tuition pricing is still being determined, system officials said. But high-performing students will be able to move through competency-based programs more quickly, they said, saving money on their way to a degree. […]Engineering is a likely next area for the system to experiment with competency-based education, he said.
Competency-based degree programs are gaining in popularity, and are shaping up to be some of the most important experiments in the quest to improve our higher education system. But it’s not the only experiment in higher ed on the horizon. The WSJ reports also on the rise of three year degrees on college campuses. These are still based on credit-hours, but fit those hours into fewer years. Schools including Purdue University, the University of Iowa and the University of South Carolina have created accelerated degree programs in recent years. Altogether, one count finds that 22 different private schools have begun offering a three-year degree since 2009. Colleges deserve credit for offering this important option, since it effectively lowers their revenue per student. Parents are naturally enthused about it.The major holdouts are the students themselves. According to the story, colleges have found students don’t want to forgo the “four year experience” for a shorter and more academically intense college career:
Many early experiments with accelerated degrees have fallen flat. While cost is a crucial consideration for most families, and the vast majority need to borrow money, many students are eager to enjoy every bit of traditional college life, including social activities, athletics and summers off. The accelerated programs require students to give up some of these perks.“Parents are really interested in saving time and money, [but] the students are really interested in the four years of a college experience,” said Jenna Templeton, vice president of academic affairs at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.
The WSJ seems to be talking about students from families that are fairly stable, financially speaking, and who’d find the extra debt incurred during a fourth year to be unpleasant but not prohibitive. But for a certain number of students, being able save that extra money by finishing early may be the difference between making do with an associate’s degree or striving for a Bachelor’s—and the higher lifetime earnings the latter often brings. These students are more likely to seize on programs that allow them to make it through a B.A. in three years or less. Still, if the WSJ is correct, many students are passing on a smarter, cheaper, and more efficient college experience because the allure of the semi-mythical “traditional” college experience, which is as much about partying as about studying, dies hard. And if they aren’t keen on a three-year credit-hour degree, it’s unlikely they’d want to do an even more experimental competency-based degree.We’re happy to see the rise of new models that provide better options for those willing, or compelled by financial circumstance, to embrace them. Higher education is too bloated and expensive to thrive in its current form. But for now, it looks like culture as well as policy is limiting the success of these models, and prolonging a poorly functioning status quo.