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Competency-Based Education: Will it Reduce Costs?

This article is slated to be updated with the latest FAFSA, Scholarship, and Financial Information. For more updated information, please refer to our 2023 and 2024 articles.

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President Obama wants more people to graduate from college.  In a speech to graduating high school students in D.C., he explained why:

“…our country used to have the world’s highest proportion of young people with a college degree; we now rank 16th. I don’t like being 16th. I like being number one.”

President Barak Obama

That was five years ago, at his Back-to-School speech at Benjamin Banneker High School in Washington.  Although the President urged young people to turn off the TV and study hard, the real crux of his message was aimed at the rest of the nation: improvements in the higher education system are in order if we were going to move back into that #1 position.

In his words, higher education must become more accessible and more affordable for young people…. two things for which traditional institutions of higher learning have never been known for.

The President Wants Higher Education To Become More Accessible And More Affordable

In the five years since Obama’s speech, (or seven years since he first announced his agenda for increased enrollment in higher education), there’s been a busy network of people in education striving to turn his initiatives into reality.

The result can largely be seen in the recent development of what’s known as competency-based higher education.

What is Competency-Based Higher Education?

Competency-based higher education is, in a nutshell, difficult to define.

It’s a concept so far-reaching that even a committee organized to define terms gave up.  Part of the reason is that colleges and universities developed their own competency-based education programs independently, with no central or overreaching committee to standardize such things as terms, policies, protocol, systems, standards.

There was nothing, that is, until around 2013. That’s when C-BEN was formed.

The Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN)

C-BEN is a network of education institutions formed to guide, promote, study, and standardize the state of affairs of competency-based education in the U.S. Comprised of around 3 dozen colleges and universities and supported by a number of experts in their fields, C-BEN works towards best practices in program design, business processes, and communications.

It was their committee who decided, after some wrestling, to give up on defining competency-based higher education.  In the words of a group member:

“We quickly learned … that it is not about the words that define ‘competency-based education.’ Instead, it is about the difference competency-based education is making in lives of students and the transformation that is occurring in higher education.”

Dr. Christine Seifert Associate Professor of Communication/Director of the Master of Strategic Communication Program, Westminster College

Competency-based higher education is, nevertheless, gaining momentum. The Vice President of Academic Achievement at Western Governors University estimates there are over 200 institutions offering something resembling competency-based education.

That could be because this new way of offering education has not only the Obama Administration behind it, but also some pretty powerful foundations.  These include Lumina Foundation, whose “Goal 2025” is a direct reference to the Obama Administration’s initiatives in this area.

Then there are the Joyce, Kresge, and Gates foundations, too.  The support is there, the desire to make this happen is fierce among many colleges and The College Board, and now it’s really starting to happen.

So, What is It?

Here’s how competency-based higher education been described:

  • student-centered learning
  • a system of education where traditional testing is replaced by mastering a series of “competencies”
  • grading based on life experience to help people save time and money in college
  • taking online courses at your own pace, and receiving credit for work experience rather than focusing on “seat time”, show competency on a test or by finishing a project
  • earning college credit for military experience, placement tests, workplace training, work experience, volunteer experience and even hobbies
  • career-focused learning
  • learning that measures knowledge, not seat time

But back to the original question: will competency-based higher education reduce costs?

Will This Make College Cheaper?

The answer depends on whose costs you’re asking about.  For student, the answer is, unequivocally, “yes”.

For colleges, time will tell. During these initial years of getting things set up on the back end, colleges will have to invest serious cash into upgrading their systems to accommodate this new style of learning.

But once those adjustments have been made, staff trained, and compliance brought forth in a way that satisfies registrars, financial aid regulations and other concerned parties, the idea is that yes, competency-based higher education will likely be cheaper, especially for the students.

That’s based on the simple fact that students will be able to earn credits without being required to sit in classrooms.  They’ll also be able to test out of courses for which they’ve gained “lifetime” learning, or real-life experience.  All that adds up to fewer college resources being used for every degree earned, but hopefully without compromising quality.  Experimentation should soon begin to show us if it is working

That hearkens back to President Obama’s vision: a college degree for young people that’s more accessible and more affordable.

This Might be How College is Done in the Future

Remember: this isn’t just for adults returning to college.  In fact, competency-based higher education is really aimed at getting younger people through college.  It’s seen by many as the new direction in higher education, meaning this is how we may be “doing college” in the future.

Imagine setting up a study in your home, where you can gaze out at scenery while you take in knowledge.  Or imagine setting up camp at a cafe to take your coursework, whenever you see fit and according to your work or family schedule.

Now imagine the degree you earn in that mode costs far less than a degree earned in the traditional sense: sitting in classrooms on a regular schedule.  Maybe that’s the proper way to define competency-based education.  It’s your own story because it’s defined by you.

If you think competency-based education might help your student accelerate the time to a degree, be sure to talk to our academic team for institutions that would be a good fit. They offer a complimentary consultation to families with college-bound students. Click here to schedule now.

Jack Schacht has over 40 years in marketing, management, career development and business leadership. As president of College Funding Advisors and co-founder of My College Planning Team, he brings his unique talents to help families identify and implement strategies that can help them substantially reduce college costs.

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