Over the last several weeks, Purdue University has announced that its School of Communications and its College of Technology have received $500,000 grants from President Mitch Daniels for creating, respectively, a three-year baccalaureate program and a competency-based program.
In the media coverage, there has been a great deal of positive spin on the possibilities opened up by these “innovations” and almost no comment on their significant liabilities or on the ways in which they represent very corporate and potentially very destructive approaches to improving higher education. The article on the competency-based program in technology in the local newspaper, the Lafayette Courier and Journal has been very typical in sounding largely like a press release from Daniels’ office: http://www.jconline.com/story/news/2014/09/04/purdue-creates-competency-degree-program/15069165/
In an earlier post, a review of Saving Higher Education: The Integrated, Competency-Based Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree Program [https://academeblog.org/2013/04/29/review-of-saving-higher-education-the-integrated-competency-based-three-year-bachelors-degree-program/], I made the following points:
–The accelerated model may save some students money, but, in compressing four years’ worth of work into three years, it risks very high attrition rates among participating students and it raises issues about the quality and depth of the students’ learning.
–The prior-learning model, which awards credits for prior experience and training may be very appropriate for some technical degrees, but, in reducing higher education to skill sets, it completely ignores most of the things that give higher education real value—that distinguish it from vocational education. It promotes the competency-based model, most notably illustrated in Western Governors University, over the credit-based model, fundamentally altering the nature of higher education. For in that competency-based model, there are no faculty, only “contracted evaluators” paid by corporations that became “educational providers” by buying up large numbers of textbook publishers, starting in the late 1990s.
–The integrated model is sort of a synthesis of elements of the other two models. The designers of such programs are expected to cull all seeming redundancy that exists from course to course within a program. The problem with this model is that much of that redundancy—for instance, in writing practice—has very real benefits. For instance, although one can certainly certify that a student’s writing has reached some basic level of competency, that measure does not preclude the student’s continuing to benefit greatly from further writing instruction and practice.
As I have highlighted in another previous point “Another Perspective on the Three-Year Baccalaureate Degree” [https://academeblog.org/2013/06/08/another-perspective-on-the-three-year-baccalaureate-degree/], the irony is that as the U.S. has been seeking ways to reduce the time required to complete a baccalaureate degree, nations in the non-Western world, most notably India, have been moving away from the European model and toward the U.S. model—that is, from three-year to four-year baccalaureate degrees. And they have been doing so despite very vociferous complaints about the effects on access and affordability.
At their root, all of the proposals for three-year baccalaureate degrees are manifestations of the belief that higher education programs are, like university faculties, full of fat that can be cut without any real loss in quality. They are reflections of a disdain for higher education, of a mind set that believes that higher education can be gotten on the cheap.
But, worse than all of that, the proponents of these degrees ignore two indisputable facts:
First, although the per-capita cost of higher education and tuition rates have increased dramatically over the last three to four decades, instructional costs have remained very flat (when both sets of numbers are adjusted for inflation). The per-capita costs have increased because of administrative bloat and spending on extra-instructional facilities, amenities, and initiatives. Tuition costs have increased because state support for public education has dramatically decreased. In fact, there is a very obvious correlation between the decline in state support and the rise in direct student costs, a correlation that does not require an economics degree to recognize and understand.
Second, many of the people who are advocating for three-year baccalaureate degrees have also been among the most vocal critics of higher education’s failure to prepare students for the workplace, echoing corporate complaints that students with baccalaureate degrees seem less and less ready to meet even some basic professional expectations. This sort of basic incongruity in argumentative stances seems to me to be both very prevalent and very seldom commented upon.
In critiquing those who are critiquing us, we need to emphasize that the supposed causes of the problems that we face are often not logically consistent with—and therefore very unlikely to be solved by—the solutions being proposed. Or, perhaps more precisely, because of these basic inconsistencies, the solution to one problem will only exacerbate other problems.
The salient model for the competency-based degrees has been Western Governors University (WGU) is a non-profit online university co-sponsored and overseen by the governors of 19 states—all of the states of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, Great Basin, Desert Southwest, Pacific Coast, Alaska, Hawaii—and, not coincidentally while Mitch Daniels was the governor, Indiana.
Since its founding in 1997, the enrollment at WGU has grown from 1,000 to about 35,000. WGU is different from most universities–and from the online for-profits–in a number of fundamental ways. Students pay tuition for six-month terms (currently about $2,900 per semester) regardless of the number of courses that they complete in any given “term.” Upon enrollment, each student is assigned a “mentor,” or academic advisor, who oversees the student’s progress throughout his or her enrollment. Students must accumulate between 120 and 132 “competency units” in order to receive one of the four dozen or so baccalaureate degrees that the university awards. A student takes one “course” at a time, and all of the course modules and supplementary materials have been developed and are provided by corporate “educational providers” such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill. When the student feels that he or she has mastered the material and can demonstrate “competency,” he or she submits a “written work” that is evaluated by a “contracted evaluator” or takes an objective test developed by Pearson or McGraw-Hill and administered at a commercial testing center. In consultation with their mentors, students who believe that their previous education or professional experience has adequately prepared them to do so can either submit written work or take an objective exam to demonstrate competency even before opening a course module. So an individual student’s rate of progress toward a degree is largely if not entirely self-determined. This model is the exact opposite of the common use of cohort groups within specialized degree programs in conventional institutions.
Of course, the major thing missing from the entire WGU model is the faculty. Up until a decade or two ago, the awarding of credit for professional experience or for demonstrated competency was almost entirely confined to technical programs, which were once almost entirely confined to the associates level but have been increasingly expanded to the baccalaureate level. Those programs have been the mainstays of one of the three models of “Accelerated” or three-year baccalaureate programs, the “Prior Learning” model, which until very recently has been regarded as having dubious merit outside of the technical disciplines.