The Changing Landscape in Higher Education

When online education began to grow by leaps and bounds in higher education, I worked for the New York State Education Department in the Office of Higher Education as the Assistant Commissioner and finally as the Deputy Commissioner. One of our jobs was trying to develop reasonable guidelines for registering online programs leading to college degrees. Here are some of the questions we grappled with:

  • Do students need access to a “brick and mortar” library?
  • How do we ensure that registered students actually do the work and take the tests?
  • If learning was asynchronous, how do we ensure that students meet the seat time requirement?
  • How do we deal with a clinical component in a degree program?

These concerns seem rather basic today and, for the most part, have gone by the wayside. While you still may see some issues relating to faculty intellectual property for online courses, few students will go through a college program without taking one or more faculty-led online courses.

An important result of this new approach was a more affordable, accessible, and practical way for many individuals to incorporate higher education into their lives. A good thing.

But there were other changes that impacted the higher education landscape. As the competition for students increased, institutions of higher education (IHEs) realized that majors that attracted only a handful of students were not going to pay the bills. IHEs began to see a completely new market in professions related to technology, sports management, and allied health fields, among many others.

In some cases, colleges were now competing for students in more “vocationally-related” degree programs where future employers were looking for students to master specific competencies. Competency-based education was not a new idea when higher education began to embrace it. Business and industry already had it for industry-based credentials and vocational high schools and community colleges were embracing it too.

Competency-based education focused on mastering a set of competencies. So the focus shifted more to “what you learned” as opposed to how long it took you to learn it. Taking a traditional 3-credit course in a 15-week semester and getting the grade of C, did not signal mastery of the material, but it still was good enough to count towards a college degree.

So how do employers view competency-based education? Employers see a clear way of documenting both the content knowledge and 21st century skills needed for future employees to be successful. Okay, but competency-based education is only a small portion of what baccalaureate education is all about. For most college degrees, there is a healthy portion of liberal arts and science courses. Courses with content that may not be as black and white as a nursing or accounting course.

Well, this perceived barrier is being challenged across the country as more colleges are offering full degree programs employing competency-based education that includes courses in the liberal arts. A good example among an increasing number of IHEs embracing this approach is Northern Arizona University (NAU). This institution offers complete baccalaureate degrees emphasizing competencies and personalized learning pathways in liberal arts, management, small business administration, computer information technology, and nursing.

At NAU, mastering the required competencies in the Liberal Arts degree program enables students to receive credit for such courses as Western Art History, World History, World Religion, Sociological Thought, and Social Criminology—not courses traditionally thought of a as competency-based. Some of the competencies that students must demonstrate in this program include the abilities to:

  • Formulate and test hypotheses in humanities and social science
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the significance of the humanities
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the significance of the social sciences
  • Apply ethical theories to education

Of course, there are 21st century competencies that you would expect students would have to master also, such as:

  • Work in team structures
  • Communicate with diverse populations
  • Solve complex problems
  • Analyze complicated materials
  • Demonstrate effective transfer of competencies to workplace

The point is that course content can be reimagined into a set of expectations (or competencies) for student learning that faculty identify as mastering the course content—which includes both specific subject knowledge (e.g., world history) and transferrable skills such as “analyzing complicated materials.”

In many ways, by employing competency-based education into liberal arts degrees, a graduate with such a degree has the ability to better demonstrate competencies acquired in college that can be effectively utilized in the work setting. As one review put it:

“Convincing prospective employers of their experience and preparation remains one of the great challenges for liberal arts grads. In a competency-based model, colleges could address that by translating liberal arts skill sets into real-world competencies for students and employers.”

The benefit of a Liberal Arts degree, as opposed to a technical degree, becomes more evident and the graduate becomes more employable. Liberal arts degrees allow students to apply their knowledge and skills to a wide variety of careers and employment sectors. Graduate opportunities are not limited to one or two technical fields.

While it is a promising practice in higher education, for competency-based education to be effectively implemented, there still need to be:

  • Realignment of courses by faculty into rigorous competencies that demonstrate mastery of program content and identify and/or integrate 21st century skills into the course.
  • Support of faculty who are willing to act as coaches to students, providing the time needed to assist these students in mastering the competencies. While some students will proceed with little or no support, many students may need ongoing assistance.
  • Academic support for students, especially students at risk, to keep them on track and intervene in a timely manner. This is a key factor irrespective of how the course content is delivered.
  • Technology that seamlessly connects the student, faculty, learning content, and academic support.

What is exciting is that we are seeing more and more colleges embracing new approaches to better educate students. We should continue to challenge the status quo in innovative ways to provide a true liberal arts education that benefits the student first and encourages institutions of higher education to continue to evolve in how they serve students. The landscape is indeed changing.