Rising tuition prices and finite public budgets have spawned a lively policy debate about innovation in higher education. It is becoming increasingly clear that the traditional seat-based, “sage-on-the-stage” approach to teaching and learning does not work for every student.

Competency-based education is one innovative approach to higher education. Competency-based education organizes academic content according to competencies — rather than by following a more traditional scheme, such as by course. The competency-based model presents opportunities for improvement by:

  • Allowing students to move at their own pace, with the promise of shortening time to complete a degree.
  • Providing a clearer signal of what graduates know and are able to do in the workplace.

Two years ago USA Funds®awarded two $1 million grants to the state of Missouri to implement competency-based learning in four of Missouri’s traditional universities, and to expand access to the state’s successful Innovation Campus approach on three campuses.

Since then, Missouri higher education leaders have made significant progress in the implementation of these competency-based models, including the following accomplishments:

  • Building partnerships with employers to inform competencies needed for the future workforce.
  • Developing systems to assess learning within competency-based programs.
  • Successfully launching students’ careers after they complete their coursework.

Under one of these innovative institutional models, students actually can earn an associate degree while still enrolled in high school, earn a bachelor’s degree after spending only two years at a four-year institution, participate in paid internships at $10 per hour, and start careers earning a minimum of $60,000 in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics-related field. This program is a perfect example of what it means to lower student costs while enhancing career readiness.

. . .

This program is a perfect example of what it means to lower student costs while enhancing career readiness.

. . .

Three key takeaways

Recently, USA Funds sponsored a convening of all of the institutions involved in the implementation of competency-based learning models in the Missouri Innovation Collaborative. Attendees’ discussions centered on topics such as faculty development, financial obstacles, and the role of partnerships. Here are three major takeaways from the discussion:

1. To effectively implement competency-based education models, colleges and universities must gain the support of traditional faculty.

Some ways to ensure that traditional faculty are supportive of this innovative model are to:

  • Engage them in defining competencies.
  • Make the involvement of full-time faculty voluntary and flexible.
  • Ensure that competency-based education will not detract from traditional program offerings.
  • Offer professional development to faculty, so they are comfortable with the technology platform.
  • Provide training on the new learning model and constant communication with the administration on progress and concerns from the faculty, and to the faculty.

2. Consider the impact of the competency-based education model on university operations and procedures.

One challenge that institutions must address early in the development of a CBE model is the cycle used to admit students. The practice of rolling admissions is a benefit for students, allowing for greater flexibility for their schedule and their timetable for completion.

But a rolling admissions process presents a logistical problem for the university. Traditional policies and procedures typically facilitate a semester or quarter model, with institutions’ systems dictating set dates for dropping and adding courses, and specific deadlines for collecting payments from students and faculty. Software and staff often are ill-equipped to address a revolving set of dates. Policies are specific to traditional calendar deadlines, and faculty are conditioned to follow a calendar that has been in place for years.

In addition, institutions must consider the geographic area from which it draws its students, and whether it should offer both a traditional classroom style and an online learning structure.

3. Better understanding and collaboration are critical for a competency-based education model to effectively foster career pathways throughout the education cycle.

Re-envisioning the last year of high school to foster stronger partnerships with community colleges and four-year institutions is a logical starting point for developing more interest in career learning driven by the CBE model. Why, for example, do all students need an hour of biology their senior year when many of them will not continue on a learning path that involves that focus of study? And for those students interested in the sciences, why not provide the opportunity to spend a week in a hospital to see the many professions in that field in a real-world environment?

Ultimately, more collaboration between high schools, community colleges, four-year universities and corporate partners is extremely important to fostering success for students. Being clear about responsibilities and communicating at the highest levels will bolster the success of innovation campuses and their CBE models, benefiting the students enrolled.

State government and higher education leaders in Missouri are tackling these issues in an effort to deliver better outcomes for their students. We at USA Funds look forward to the success of these innovative initiatives moving forward.