Out of all of the innovations emerging in higher education, competency-based education has been flying under the radar especially when compared with MOOCs. Only competency-based learning deals directly with self-paced mastery of a subject regardless of the time it takes to get there. As my colleague Michael Horn likes to say, we’ve been measuring the wrong end of the student for far too long. Once we dismiss the notion of fixed seat time, we will be able to concern ourselves–more importantly–with fixed student learning outcomes.

I’m hopeful that we’ll soon see the demise of the credit hour through the impressive developments in competency-based learning. Western Governor’s University (WGU) is now well known, and we’re seeing more schools like University Now’s Patten University, Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, University of Wisconsin’s Flexible Option, and Northern Arizona University’s Personalized Learning pursue similarly low-priced ventures with slightly different technologies and business models.

With the DOE’s most recent Dear Colleague letter and support of SNHU’s College for America project, we’re clearly moving in the right direction. Nevertheless, complications arise when, even at WGU, innovation gets stymied because of the need to fit a new light bulb into an antiquated socket. WGU still uses credits as stand-ins for their competencies.

Even UniversityNow, which has averted regulatory oversight by not seeking any Title IV funding, relies upon course units and a traditional grading system because they need to make the students’ work translatable to the outside world, especially so that students can transfer seamlessly in and out.

The most important thing we can do right now is figure out a way to make competencies the new currency within higher education. This is vital to a more transparent credit transfer process, which will facilitate degree completion and more direct pathways into the workforce.

There’s a perfect analog to our inefficient higher education system in today’s healthcare industry. When you think about it, our own personal health records are not actually personal; they’re not portable, interoperable, standard-format records that we can take with us wherever we go. All electronic health record systems are proprietary–accessible within systems but gen­erally not from points outside the system. It is simply not in the interest of healthcare providers to enable other providers from different systems to care easily for their own patients.

In the same way, students cannot transfer easily between schools because there is no interdependency and no incentive for universities to standardize their practices. It’s up to individual registrars to grant credit for courses taken outside of the destination college. This is a hugely wasteful process because students are paying for these classes at one institution but may have to retake those same classes when they transfer into another college in order to complete their degrees. There is something wrong when we say to students that X university’s Calculus course is not as rigorous as Y’s Calculus course, and so you need to take it again. This delays degree completion and ultimately enlarges the opportunity cost of going to college.

Part of this is a financial ploy: students are capped in terms of the amount of credits they can enter with because from a monetary standpoint for most colleges, the institution admitting the transfer student wants to be able to make a certain amount of money off of each student and have them take as many classes as possible from them. They have absolutely no incentive to grant credit for classes taken at another institution.

The only state in the country right now that has a common course numbering system is Florida. Algebra 1105 is the same across all public postsecondary institutions in Florida. This common course numbering ensures that the credits of students will easily transfer. Unfortunately, however, their course numbers have little transferability across state lines.

Here is where we can take a cue from what has not worked up until now and jump in before competency-based learning proliferates (and it will spread—quickly). We should think critically about core competencies that can translate across institutions and state borders. Switching to competencies as the new currency will enable us to move beyond the obsolete credit hour and facilitate a much-needed dynamic and integrated interplay between education and industry.

The idea that four years amply prepares you for the workforce is quickly becoming outmoded, as more workers find themselves returning to school to re-tool for newer and better jobs. Through competency-based learning, higher education can become the core facilitator of lifelong learning.


  • Michelle R. Weise, PhD
    Michelle R. Weise, PhD