Thursday, July 19, 2012

Does competency-based education shorten time to graduation?

Over at The Quick and the Ed, Mandy Zatynski reports on a hearing of the House Education and Workforce subcommittee about the cost-effectiveness of higher education.  There, she reports that Teresa Lubbers, Indiana's Commissioner of Higher Ed testified that competency-based education, particularly of the sort offered at Western Governor's University, shortens the time to graduation.

I am a fan of competency-based education. Westminster offers three degree programs, a Bachelor's of Business Administration, an MBA, and a soon-to-be Masters in Strategic Communication, that are all competency-based.  Student learning in these programs is phenomenal.  Students feel like they have learned deeply, and that what they learned is more relevant to their lives than what they would have learned in the traditional classroom. And where we have been able to measure learning outcomes side-by-side with traditional programs, students in our competency-based program learn at least as much as students in our traditional programs. But these programs do not, by their nature, lead students to graduate more quickly.  

The same is true for Western Governor's University.  Their IPEDS data is quite clear on this point. Only 18% of students who entered in 2005-2006 had graduated in six years, and only 25% had transferred elsewhere.  No matter how you look at it, at WGU, competency-based education  does not lead to quicker graduation, regardless of what Teresa Lubbers says.

This isn't surprising, given the students who enroll at WGU.  All courses are taught on-line, and most students are non-traditional.  Many stop and start, or take more time to complete classes because of work, family, etc.  This is WGU's market, and based on the students I know who attend there, the approach to learning matches their lives.

The take home is simple.  WGU fills a niche.  Their academic programs are well-designed; their organizational structure innovative.  But if you want to improve time-to-graduation, you've got to look elsewhere.

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