Is College Credit In Exchange For Life Experience A Fair Trade?

What if your years of managing a Burger King in high school counted toward credit for a business degree in human resources? What if babysitting helped you get a certificate in early childhood education? The life experience for college credit deal has long been associated with scammy online pop-up offers (Get a PhD based on life experience! No studying necessary!) and predatory for-profit institutions, but competency-based education has also been quietly offered in one form or another by credible colleges and is poised to grow in popularity as a potential revenue source for cash-strapped institutions and students who want to earn credentials in the shortest time and at the lowest cost. But should we worry that the credit-for-experience bargain shortchanges students and dilutes educational quality?

The New York Times ran a piece on the weekend focused on New Jersey’s Thomas Edison State College, which, along with Western Governors University, is something of a pioneer in the competency-based education sphere. As the piece quotes the school’s president George A. Pruitt:

“We don’t care how or where the student learned –  whether it was from spending three years in a monastery – as long as that learning is documented by some reliable assessment technique. Learning takes place continuously throughout our lives. If you’re a success in the insurance industry, and you’re in the million-dollar round table, what difference does it make if you learned your skills at Prudential or at Wharton?”

The example Pruitt gives is an skewed a one. Working your way up from the mail room at Prudential and eventually being able to parlay decades of on-the-job experience into a diploma for your office wall is one thing; these type of students are likely long past the age when the “full” college experience of professors, classes, group work and networking opps are of interest or career benefit to them. As Jayson Boyers argues over at the Huffington Post, competency-based education omits the social and relationship-based aspects of a college education, which often yield as much career benefit as classroom knowledge to those just entering the workforce.

“A full educational experience is more than just consuming information from books and course study materials and then regurgitating it back. A large part of a well-rounded education depends on the experience and knowledge gained from interacting in teams and establishing important personal relationships. If we are truly invested in providing a quality higher education experience to all students – traditional and non-traditional – how can we omit this critical component completely from students’ college education?” he writes.

In addition to the argument about the competency-based education approach presenting a poor simulacrum of the traditional higher education experience, there is also the nagging question as to whether the students who pursue this type of accreditation have truly gained the same level of subject area knowledge and expertise as those who have slogged through four years of course work. For every Mary Carney who had been working as a nurse since 1980 and wanted to finally upgrade her associate’s degree to a bachelor’s and then a master’s, isn’t there also the possibility of awarding credit to students who are simply savvy test takers without the practical skills to back up their ability to ace exams? Is this simply the post-secondary equivalent of the “teach the test” approach that has been derided as epidemic in many corners of the K-12 system?

It’s a question worth pondering, especially as more states consider how to get aboard the competency-based bandwagon. For example, Wisconsin has indicated interest in pursuing ‘flexible degree’ options within their higher education system of 13 universities and 13 two-year college system. Students could opt for self-paced courses that would cost the same as traditional credit courses, or they could skip the course and simply pay for the competency exam they would need to pass in order to earn credit. Last year, Ray Cross, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges, told Inside Higher Ed that he expects some students will simply take a free MOOC (massive online open course) offered by another school and then opt to write their competency exam based on the what they learned therein or knowledge they acquired independently. If that sounds like a daunting responsibility for a college freshman – no matter how self-motivated – to shoulder, the data backs that up. Not only are those who take a greater number of online courses less likely to ever earn degrees, new research from Columbia shows that the rise of online education actually widens the achievement gap between demographic groups, with those who struggle in a traditional college setting having an even more difficult time navigating the waters of MOOCs and distance ed.

Despite criticisms and potential drawbacks, competency-based learning’s appeal extends beyond its low cost for both education providers and consumers. It also neatly fits in with the current climate of degree inflation. As more and more jobs require applicants to have degrees (even if the job task could be performed by someone without a post-secondary education), the ability to secure such a credential in short order and at low cost seems like the perfect the solution for ‘underqualified’ job hunters. Unfortunately,  for both students and the employers who would hire them, the increasing difficulty in securing the work experience necessary to demonstrate competency sans degree favors the less-rigorous test it and forget it model of competency-based learning. But really, how much damage could an underskilled file clerk do?


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