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Will future college degrees be based more on experience than classroom time?

Posting in Education

The disruption shaking the business model of higher education continues. It started with the rise of online learning and for-profit institutions, and lately has been seen with the launch of massive open online courses. Now, a new disruptive trend is emerging: more granting of degrees based on life experience, rather than accumulated hours spent in classrooms.

Photo credit: Joe McKendrick

In a recent New York Times article, Anya Kamenetz reports that "the system equating time with learning is being challenged from high quarters." Those high quarters include the U.S. Department of Education, as well as some educational leaders. Instead of requiring credit-hours spent in courses, assessments are based on "tangible evidence of learning, a concept known as competency-based education." In other words, exams without the classwork. This has been available for a number of years for testing out of individual courses, but it's only been recently that proponents have advocated the ability to acquire degrees for entire programs via competency testing.

Colleges and universities pioneering the concept of degrees based on competency tests include University of Wisconsin, Western Governors University, College for America (the online arm of Southern New Hampshire University), Capella University, and Northern Arizona University.

In a recent speech, Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation and a leading advocate of competency-based education, says the current system, with its sky-high tuition and limited abilities to serve working professionals, is broken. In turn, this is impeding the abilities of employers to identify and acquire the talent needed to compete in a global economy:

"Employers expect better graduates. They want degree and certificate holders who are truly prepared for the demands and complexities of the modern workplace. State leaders and policymakers expect better results. They want institutions to produce more and better graduates at reasonable cost; in other words, they expect a better return on the investment of public education funds. Students and families expect a more responsive higher-ed system. They want high-quality programs, delivered in a variety of modes and platforms at prices that don’t force them to mortgage their future."

The bottom line is learning and updating skills can't cease in one's twenties, upon graduation. To compete and be productive, people need to engage in lifelong learning. And this learning no longer just comes from classrooms on a college campus. It comes from ongoing training and development on the job, or at conferences and workshops, or via the internet through MOOCs and online courses.

Or, as University of Wisconsin president Kevin P. Reilly put it to The New York Times: “There’s a continuing sense that students can and do draw on so many sources of information that are now available at their fingertips. They don’t need to come to the monastery for four years and sit at the feet of the monks.”

— By on November 6, 2013, 12:59 AM PST

Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure