Editorial: Competency-based degrees foster necessary professional skills

There has been a potential breakthrough in academic institutions’ ability to better prepare their students for the professional world.


Institutions have begun to adopt the new concept of competency-based degrees to assist students in gaining the necessary tools within a specific major to make them competitive applicants when entering the workforce. These degrees allow students to “gain academic credit by demonstrating academic competence through a combination of assessment and documentation of experience,” said Joel Shapiro, associate dean of academics at Northwestern University’s School of Continuing Studies.

While this certainly rocks the traditional form of acquiring a college education — an ideal four-year education including general education requirements alongside specific major requisites — these competency-based programs could finally satisfy students’ true college need: gaining the skills to enter a competitive workforce. These programs would allow students to bypass general electives and other classes required by college administrators and, instead, focus on being evaluated by demonstrating a “mastery of knowledge” and “set of proficiencies” crucial to postsecondary success.

Secondary institutions that currently use this model   — such as Southern New Hampshire University, Excelsior College and the University of Wisconsin —  and those that plan to adopt such a program should keep in mind their ability to give students a choice between obtaining a traditional education or competency-focused education. Universities should consider structures that allow students to gain the best of both models, as it would create a dual-faceted education system through which students could experience the in-class and out-of-class components of their major.

A system that could work, with components residual in currently adopting institutions nationwide, would be one that has a four-year education plan that blends the traditional and competency-based educational programs. 

Under this blended system, beginning with the first year, each alternate year would be dedicated to traditional, classroom-based learning while the other two years would revolve around experiments and programs, which would lend students a better grasp of the skills needed in the workplace of their given field of study. This would ensure that students are making the best decisions based on the experiences they receive from their intended studies both inside the classroom, in a theoretical sense, and outside the classroom, in an experiential sense. 

Some secondary institutions have already begun to alter the traditional four-year, course-based approach by incorporating competency-based components to courses. Marylhurst University and Brandman University, for example, have kept their four-year programs but have integrated, to some extent, competency-focused components to courses, simultaneously giving students the advantages of both methods.

While the traditional method practiced by secondary institutions will undoubtedly continue to attract students, the need for the acquirement of skills useful to the postsecondary world will continue to grow. As the demand for that increases, institutions will have to incorporate these learning skills into curricula to ensure a retention of student enrollment. The competency model is enticing to adopt, and for institutions skeptical of its success, even small doses have been proven to work in dozens of schools.

Institutions, primed with the duty to give students the tools to succeed both in and after college, shouldn’t shy away from enhancing their traditionally effective methods. But, universities must not only help students to acquire valuable professional skills, but also test the applicability of those skills. Competency-based methods can actually help create a better, more successful student.

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