Episode 67 - Competency-Based Education Using Direct Assessment

President Scott L Wyatt and Steve Meredith sit down with Paul Fain, writer for Inside Higher Ed, to discuss direct assessment, a type of competency-based education.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I’m your host, Steve Meredith, and I’m joined today in-studio by my trusty sidekick, and president and boss, Scott Wyatt. 

Scott Wyatt: [Laughs]

Meredith: President, how are you? 

Wyatt: Good, thanks. Good morning, Steve, it’s a beautiful day out there. 

Meredith: Has anyone ever referred to you as a trusty sidekick?

Wyatt: I am your Huckleberry. 

Meredith: Yeah, for sure. [Both laugh] Anyway, it’s good to see you and we’re in the middle of a beautiful fall here. And we’re also in the middle of a run of podcasts talking about a variety of innovative practices on college campuses that are interesting to us to discuss and to see how we could possibly implement parts of them, and one of those things that we’ve been discussing over the course of a few podcasts now is competency-based education. And today, we’re going to talk specifically about a type of competency-based education, called direct assessment, with our guest who is joining us via phone today from Washington, D.C. Why don’t you introduce him?

Wyatt: Well, thank you Steve. Yes, we are delighted to have Paul Fain join us today. A writer for Inside Higher Ed, one of the industry’s most prestigious publications. 

Meredith: That’s right. 

Wyatt: Paul, thanks for joining us. 

Paul Fain: Thanks for having me, President Wyatt, this is fun. 

Wyatt: How’s the world in Washington, D.C. today? 

Fain: Well, it’s as always, peachy-keen. Everybody gets along well here in Washington, as you know. [All laugh] It’s actually…we had some nice weather today, so we can focus on that. It’s a beautiful day in Washington. 

Wyatt: Well, I think it’d be fun to start out, Paul, if you can tell us your…just briefly tell us your path to become a writer of higher education. 

Fain: Sure, yeah, happy to do that. I always love to talk about myself, that’s one of the ways my job works well. People do like to talk. So, yeah. I was a reporter who covered all sorts of things—crimes, K-12, etc.—briefly early in my career, and worked at a Weekly Paper in Charlottesville, Virginia where University of Virginia is located and it’s a pretty influential entity in Charlottesville. And after that, I got a job at The Chronicle of Higher Education covering college presidency and finance in about 2004 and you know, I have to say I was initially kind of skeptical about becoming a higher ed reporter. I wasn’t sure if it would sustain me in terms of interest and I was wrong about that. This is a pretty fascinating field of coverage. You know, about class equity, workforce development…there’s just so much that higher ed is in the middle of and it feels like more so every day. So, I did that at The Chronicle for about seven years and then I came over to Inside Higher Ed about eight or so years ago. I’m now a news editor over here, I do all sorts of things. I write a lot and I edit a lot. 

Wyatt: This…Paul, you’re right, this is a very interesting time in higher education. 

Fain: Good to hear you say that, I’ve felt that way as well. 

Wyatt: It’s just fascinating. We’ve…so much disruption and so many colleges and universities being merged or going out of business and the worries about the birth dearth and what’s happening with enrollments looking forward a decade ahead and then some of these for-profits and not for-profits that are doing these really amazing innovations that are disruptive to everybody. This is…I think this has got to be the most interesting time in higher ed that we’ve had since the University of Paris opened its doors. Which was a thousand years ago. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Fain: It’s a common sentiment that I feel like everything changed with the recession. 

Wyatt: Yes. 

Fain: The acceleration pressure and pace of change, but it’s just continued and I feel like so much is up for grabs right now. It’s exciting and a little nerve racking I imagine at institutions. 

Wyatt: Yeah, the recession in 2008, that…it feels to us like everything changed then. 

Fain: Yeah. 

Wyatt: Everybody is more interested in outcomes and…

Meredith: Workforce attachments…

Wyatt: Workforce, return on investment…

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: A relevance. Yeah. Anyway, so, we are talking about competency-based education and within that is direct assessment. And not all of our listeners understand competency-based education but it’s…maybe you can help us define that. It’s quite a paradigm shift. 

Fain: Definitely. Want me to just give…

Wyatt: Yeah, give it a shot. 

Fain: Yeah, it’s not an easy thing to define either, but I think that the general definition that we use is a delivery mode of higher education that doesn’t rely on traditional grading. It’s more about students demonstrating competency, knowledge mastery in predefined competencies across a program. They can be very aggressive in the form of direct assessment which is totally untethered from the credit hour standard. It requires exemptions from accreditors and the federal government to do that and there’s only seven or so institutions that have gotten that kind of competency-based education on steroids. An aggressive form. But competency-based education itself I think, of course, is quite a shift, too. You have to break apart and map your credential programs and your majors as competencies, and I gather that’s a lot of work and can be difficult and controversial. There’s different ways that you can do this. The biggest, by far, institution in the competency-based space is based out of Utah, Western Governor’s University, one of the largest universities in the country might be right now over 100,000 students and they are fully competency-based. And I will be brief here, but one of the things that I think is most fascinating about what they did, they’re not direct assessment, but they’ve unbundled their faculty role. 

Wyatt: Right. 

Fain: So, you have subject matter expert and then multiple folks in the faculty, that are defined as faculty, who work with students on a regular basis. And you can do things differently in competency-based ed with the faculty role. 

Wyatt: Yeah, so Western Governor’s has a faculty member who writes the curriculum and then a different person who teaches it and a different person who mentors and a different person who assesses. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Fain: Yeah. 

Wyatt: The whole thing is broken out into quite an elaborate division of labor. And there’s good and bad in that, of course, but one of the intriguing pieces is that you get rid of the bias of a faculty member assessing her own students. Somebody else does that. 

Fain: Yep. 

Wyatt: So, you find out—they would say—they find out if real learning is going on because somebody else is making that assessment, not the person who is doing the teaching. That’s just such an interesting concept. So foreign to the traditional thousand-year-old university model. 

Meredith: Right. And I’m…I have been intrigued as we’ve discussed…we, in a previous podcast, had the president of Western Governor’s on, and I have been intrigued at that notion of being untethered from the credit hour, and, as you’ve suggested, that would take an enormous amount of effort and probably reaccreditation in some other manner to do that. But as you look at, for example, in the report that you’ve written that we’re citing today—and by the way, for our listeners, we will post a link to Mr. Fain’s report here so that you can dig a little bit deeper and understand what we are talking about—but you mentioned that…you talk specifically about Capella University and Southern New Hampshire University, and that direct assessment, which is slightly different and we’d love to hear about the difference maybe specifically between direct assessment version of a competency-based education, but also you mention that there’s been mixed reports from regulators, accreditors. 

Fain: Mhmm. 

Meredith: Can you go into that just a little bit? I’d be curious about what the mixed messages have been. 

Fain: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a bit of a saga, but the CliffNote version, on the low end of transformational change when it comes to competency-based ed would be institutions that are basically just doing learning outcomes as competencies. You know, taking what they’re supposed to be doing as required by their accreditors, but defining more granularly what students should be learning in a program and calling them competencies. And I don’t mean to be dismissive of that, that’s a step on the path to competency-based ed, you start referring to your learning requirements as competencies, but on the much further end of that, you have Western Governor’s, which…over 100,000 students focused entirely on competency-based programs but, as we said, a whole different way that we’ve been doing instruction. Direct assessment takes it a step further or in a different direction in that you have full self-pacing possibilities, meaning that students can work through the required assessment at their own pace if they are able to eventually test out of competencies quickly, they can do it. If it takes them more time, they can take more time on specific competencies. So, it just gives you a lot more flexibility and freedom around the traditional academic calendar, which is broken out into the credit hour standard of three hours of work outside of class and one hour in class per week in a credit scenario. That is not a requirement under direct assessment. The first institution to try this was Southern New Hampshire University, this was about seven years ago, they got it approved by their accreditor, Middle States, and the federal government gave them a green light to give it a try. And the reason they have to do that is there are financial aid rules that are tied to the credit hour, so they basically got approval to try something new, and I know that for a lot of universities, the hardest part of all of this is structuring your financial aid around a totally unfamiliar schedule, a totally different way of doing things. But Southern New Hampshire gave it a whirl and is still cruising along with their College for America, which is entirely direct assessment, Capella was next and then about five other institutions have followed them. And a couple of years into that, the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Education flagged the accreditation process for those programs, or a couple of them, saying that they hadn’t been adequately assessed and that mostly kind of was with tied to the faculty role. Are faculty members having the required amount of contact with students in these programs? You can see how that would be an issue if students are really working in a self-paced environment. Our regulatory structure doesn’t really know how to deal with that. And then the Inspector General basically told the accreditor, “Hey, hold on here. Let’s make sure we’re getting this right.” And that had a chilling effect. The accreditors were paused approving some of these, some of them didn’t get approval that were seeking it, I think the industry as a whole, because this is a lot of effort, decided, “Maybe we need to wait and see if this is going to be a favored approach by regulators and the federal government.” But that…I’m sure we have blown over. It took a while, and I think that the gears are turning again and it seems to have a lot of bipartisan support here in Washington and the accreditors are open to this sort of innovation, they say, and I believe that they are…they have tried to adjust their structure to allow for well-designed competency-based and direct assessment programs to progress. 

Wyatt: Yeah, it complicates it when you bring in federal financial aid, doesn’t it? 

Fain: Very much so, I gather. 

Wyatt: Because all of the sudden now the federal government is saying, “Is this something that we’re willing to pay for?”

Fain: Yep. 

Wyatt: Rather than just, “Is this something that an organization is doing?” And the paradigm shift for education is actually very significant. If I would talk to a lot of our faculty here at Southern Utah University, they would say, “Well, you know what? Really I am competency-based because we teach during the semester and if the student can show the competencies in the final exam, then they get the good grade.” But this says, “You don’t have to show up to one class if you already have the competencies under a direct assessment. You just walk in the first day, take the test, and if you pass the test then you are winning.” 

Meredith: And as opposed to the…because you’ve always been sort of able to “test out” of courses, but typically what we do when we do that is we waive that requirement. We don’t actually grant credit, we just waive the requirement out of a major or something. But in this particular case, they’re granting credit for walking in and being able to do something. 

Wyatt: And credit leads to financial aid. 

Meredith: That’s right, and credit is attached to financial aid. We recently just changed our academic calendar from 15 weeks to 14 weeks and just even that shift…I should say 15 weeks plus a…14 weeks plus a test week. We recently just went right down to that model of 30 weeks that are required by federal financial aid, and just that change required us to really talk carefully about the ramifications of federal financial aid. 

Fain: Yeah, as a lay person who doesn’t administer aid, I can only rely on what I’m told, and it sounds like doing this…doing direct assessment or competency-based ed is a really big list given the current structures. Even more…you know, Capella, big, large online university, 15 years ago or so converted their entire curriculum to competency-based, and in a very meaningful way, not just when they’re dressing, so they were well prepared for this, and still, and a big institution with some capital and the ability to do things that smaller institutions aren’t, they still said that it was harder than they even thought it would be to retool around the structure. And it is aid, mostly, but it’s more than that if you think about it. Students graduate with a very different transcript. It’s not grade-based, it’s competency-based. And all of these institutions, I believe, that do direct assessments are still giving…they’re still mapping those competency-based transcripts back to what looks like a more standard transcript that has the credits on it. Because if you’re going to go to grad school or transfer, you need to help the other institutions understand what you did. So, even though they’re doing this very experimental form of higher ed, they’re still having to tie it back to the standard transcript and aid structures, because frankly, as a system, we’re just not there right now. 

Wyatt: They’re speaking a language that nobody else understands. 

Fain: Right. 

Wyatt: It’s like walking into a country where you’re speaking one language and everybody else is speaking a different one. It’s really a challenge. 

Fain: And, I think that the key to programs like this succeeding, I’ve heard, is that employers need to know what this is. You need to have employers at the table, frankly, in helping understand what the competencies are. Or, frankly, I hear from a lot of places you probably want employers helping define the competencies. And that is controversial. That’s allowing employers into the academic process that is probably pretty difficult for people to understand why that should happen. But if you’re Southern New Hampshire’s College for America, you’re graduating students with two year credentials that are direct assessment. You want your employer having faith that—the employers that are likely to hire these students—that what this is. So, almost all of their students, I don’t know if this is still the case, are based…are through employer partnerships where the employer helps encourage the student that this is an option and that this credential will be honored. 

Wyatt: We have a lot of mixed…when you discuss, Paul, the employer involvement, we have a lot of mixed feelings on all of our campuses around the country. When I was an undergraduate student, my major was philosophy, and my father was an electrical engineer professor, and he would say to me, “You shouldn’t be studying philosophy; that’s something you should be studying at home. You should go to the university to get a career. Direct skills…”

Fain: Right. 

Wyatt: “Credentials for a career. That’s what the taxpayers should be paying for.” So, we had these little conflicts over my undergraduate degree. And then, of course, on the other side of it, the faculty would say, “Well, we’re not a vocational school. We’re training people that can think and write and understand” and you’ve got these two worlds that actually exist on every campus. 

Meredith: Oh, yeah. 

Wyatt: We have those debates internally all of the time. 

Fain: Absolutely. And you know, as we get more sophisticated data about return on investment for students and about employment and wages, which is a tricky issue in itself, and you know this well, those general ed, liberal education skills are in high, high demand. A philosophy major, they do pretty well, especially a few years out. Employers want people who can write and think, particularly in a knowledge economy where jobs are changing so fast. So, it’s a nuance questions. It’s not just that people want you to know a technical skill. And in fact, a lot of technical skills age out of value pretty quickly. So, those are enormously tough questions, but I think there is a general agreement in the world that I cover that having employers participate in some programs, maybe not all, maybe not all the humanities, but having some input of what they value in employees is probably a good thing to do. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Fain: To at least account for that. 

Wyatt: Right. And we have industry advisory boards that work with many of our departments. And they’re embraced by the departments, the departments have sought them out. And it’s…half of the reason is to help students in the department build connections to future jobs and the other half is to help them make sure they’re teaching the right things because we can forget what the right things are. 

Fain: Right. 

Wyatt: So, there’s a lot of good reasons for that. 

Meredith: Well, even if you are speaking as a long time classroom teacher who also was actively engaged in the…Paul, in my other life, I’m a musician, so I was actively engaged as a musician, the truth is if you have a day job as a professor, it’s really almost impossible to keep up with the changes in your industry, whatever they are. And maybe the expectation shouldn’t even be that. We expect people to do research and we expect them to understand what’s going on in their area generally, but the world has changed so quickly and so dramatically that I think it’s very difficult to expect a person who has a regular job working in a classroom at a university to also be at the very, very top of their game in terms of understanding what the changes are that are driving industry. And it, to me, always has made sense to ask the people that are on the pointy edge of that stick, that are actually doing it for their input because we probably are insulated just a little bit from those changes. 

Fain: Yeah, and these are, as you all know, very complex, controversial questions. But I think it depends on the program, it depends on the level of credential, but a good example I like to use on this is Google, a company we’ve all heard of, created their own eight month online certificate for entry-level IT jobs. They literally produced the curriculum and all of the content, and they got industry sign-off across a huge range of tech companies that this is the credential that you should have, that this covers the competencies we want. And now, they are retroactively offering that credential for credit through partnerships with 30+ community colleges. And so, the question is: what skills are needed for an entry level IT employee? This industry feels like maybe it needs to take the lead in doing it itself. That the need is profound and they can’t fill their jobs fast enough and they feel like they can do this in a way that they could maybe do faster and better than higher education. I’m not defending that approach, but I don’t think that’s probably the case for a second tier job in IT, and certainly in a high level developer job, you need that computer science grounding that universities do best. So, it really depends on the job and the field. 

Wyatt: Yeah, it does. And what you have just described in terms of Google and then retroactively getting credit at a community college is a great way to illustrate this massive shift that competency-based, and direct assessment in particular, is threatening. 

Fain: Yeah. 

Wyatt: I don’t use “threatening” in a bad way, but it is threatening. It takes universities from being, this is a rough analogy, but it takes universities from being the dispensers of knowledge to being the certifiers or knowledge. 

Fain: Yeah. 

Wyatt: The logical extreme is that a person finished the last question and you say, “You got it.”

Fain: Yep. 

Wyatt: Without having taken a class. 

Fain: And that example is terrifying I think, for good reason, to a lot of people. 

Wyatt: Well, it is. And as we’ve talked about the complications for federal financial aid, that could also mean that the person could be supported by the federal government for the equivalent of four years. 

Fain: Yep. 

Wyatt: As they just simply take tests. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: So, it’s not an easy…it’s not easy. 

Fain: Yeah. And you know, I think…go ahead, I’m sorry. 

Wyatt: No, no, I was just saying if you’re a for-profit company then we sometimes wonder if you’re…what your motives are. 

Fain: Absolutely. You know, I think the supporters of this modality have been very careful to try to avoid a meltdown where a bad actor comes in, floods the market with low-value credentials and then the regulators come in…you know, familiar to anyone who followed the for-profit industry’s rise and, frankly, collapse. They’re down to half the enrollment they were years after the recession and the bottom hasn’t been hit yet. So, the federal government under Obama, and frankly, under Trump, and the accreditors and the foundations, frankly, that support this innovation have been pretty clique-ish, like, “If you want to do this, you’ve got to prove to us that you’re going to do it well so you don’t ruin the whole vision.” 

Wyatt: Mm.

Fain: You know, Capella is the frontrunner, their one of the pioneers of this field and very respected, they’re a for-profit and it wasn’t easy for them to get through that door. There are people watching this to make sure that it doesn’t go bad. I don’t know that they’re going to succeed, but you can see the risk. And I think to get to the real brass tacks of what this is about, to me, competency-based ed, with the exception of Western Governor’s, has not taken off in a giant way. These are pretty small, boutique programs. Capella’s got 7,000 people enrolled in their direct assessment program, so that’s no joke, but still, this hasn’t changed the whole world. But the underlying transformation to competencies that can be centrally determined seems to me to be the big thing. I know a big university system that is working on transforming their entire…all of their curriculum to competencies and they’re not requiring that you use them yet, but you can see where that’s heading. Now, I think Western Governor’s in a more central way determines what students should be learning and then there are coaches and others on the ground to help students, but that’s a very different way of determining what students learn than I think what traditional faculty members are used to. 

Wyatt: Yeah, and we talk about the worries, but on the upside, wow, we all knew people in school that were bored because they already knew everything. 

Fain: Yep. 

Wyatt: And then they dropped out or they struggled or they didn’t do their homework because it was just so easy for them, certain subjects were easy for them, and what this does is we take you where you are and then we teach you what else you need to learn and you can move as fast as you want and spend less time on the things you already know and spend more time on the things you don’t know. The concept of it is spectacular. 

Meredith: Yep. 

Fain: Absolutely. 

Meredith: And in your report, we don’t…I mean, we’re not advertising for Capella or Western Governor’s, certainly, because that would not be in our best interest [All laugh] but nevertheless, you cite the fact that the people, the students that are in the Capella FlexPath program, that there seem to be quite a lot of data that supports the fact that it’s significantly less expensive, that they persist at a higher rate and that they finish more quickly. 

Fain: Yep. 

Meredith: All of which are great goals for any university to have. 

Fain: Yeah. I think the concept of a more personalized approach to higher education, is certainly attractive. And again, I don’t think that means that you have to just be in the certifying of prior knowledge business. That’s part of it, but yeah, if you’re in a class and you’ve already kind of mastered the concept and yet you have to sit along with others, you can see how this would give students an advantage compared to that. And as you say, Steve, Capella’s bachelor’s programs focusing on direct assessment were 59% faster in completing that ones in the equivalent credit-based ones. And I think part…I think when people think about this, they really focus on the fast learner who cruises through this. I wrote a story once about Southern New Hampshire had a 21-year old student who was the first one to complete their direct assessment credential, he was working the night shift at a Slim Jim factory, a very smart kid who just didn’t have…didn’t think he could do community college because of his schedule and was able to progress very rapidly [inaudible]. And there are a lot of people like that in the program. But on the other hand, if you do get hung up on something, if there’s a concept that you can’t master and you need more time, need more help from coaches, this modality is beneficial there as well. 

Wyatt: Right. And instead of ending the semester with a “C” you end the semester with a competency. 

Fain: Absolutely. There’s no “gentleman’s C” here. 

Wyatt: Yeah, a “C” may or may not be…a person that gets a “C” may or may not have learned anything. But a person that tests the competency may or may not too. It’s really kind of a challenge. 

Fain: Yeah. 

Wyatt: One of the challenges that we hear about competency-based education is that there are certain competencies that can’t be tested. 

Fain: Yes. 

Wyatt: That one of the things we’re trying to do is help students develop the soft skills and to help them develop more compassion and understanding to not just be tolerant of people different but to be inclusive and to develop an understanding of all of these things that make a democracy and communities work. And if we focus simply on competencies for a job, we’ve gutted a big part of the role of the university. That’s…and I wish there was a way to test those competencies. I wish we could say, “Yes, you get an ‘A’ in ‘preparation to be a participant in democracy.’”

Meredith: [Laughs] Right. 

Fain: Yeah. 

Wyatt: We don’t really have a great way of testing that. But it is what we value. 

Fain: But, when you kick the tire in some of these programs, they do try and some of them may do more to measure, I hate this term, but the soft skills, than you might think. And…yeah. And the other point I might make is, why can’t you do that as well? Just because you have competencies that imperfectly measure some of these more intangible skills doesn’t mean you can’t offer instruction in those skills. You know what I mean? But I think it is fair to say that that’s a concern and to be just totally blunt, there is just no doubt in my mind that competency-based education, particularly direct assessment, is going to be held to a higher standard than a 101 psych class where there are 500 students and somebody like me is in the back row reading a newspaper. You know, I think that’s going to get a “free pass” in the way we assess and hold higher ed accountable compared to a modality that seems unfamiliar, and they’re going to have to jump through more hoops to be accepted, no doubt. 

Wyatt: So, Paul, what do you think the outcome of that is? Because I think we agree with you that…

Meredith: Yes. 

Wyatt: Nobody questions the fact that if a student sits in class or supposedly sits in class for 15 weeks and then gets a grade…

Meredith: Well, we, President, we’ve always said that face-to-face is…we have this debate about face-to-face versus online education. 

Fain: Sure, big question.

Meredith: Yeah. Face-to-face education is terrific for the students in the first two rows who are actively engaged. But if you are, Paul, as you just suggested, in a room full of 300 people and you’re reading the newspaper or todays’ equivalent, looking at your phone, is that a better experience for you than some sort of self-paced direct assessed or just even a plain good, old online program where you didn’t feel compelled to sit there and waste 50 minutes or whatever the amount of times is, and yet, we make those programs adhere to a higher standard. It’s almost as though we are suggesting, “Well, that person on the last row, that’s the cost of doing business” rather than us saying, “No, we need to engage that person in the fifteenth row.” 

Wyatt: This is one of the reasons why SUU doesn’t have any fifteenth rows. [All laugh]

Meredith: That’s right, we pride ourselves on small class sizes and that’s one of the reasons. 

Wyatt: But I didn’t talk to someone recently who asked how big our school was and when I said what the enrollment was, she kind of smiled and said, “I had 7,000 students in my classical mythology class.”

Fain: Wow. 

Wyatt: And I thought, “That kind of takes away our argument, doesn’t it?” That 7,000 students, you’re not going to have any mentoring from the professor, you’re not going to have those opportunities. 

Fain: Yeah. And I think that’s…I mean, these are big questions as you know. How do we offer access to quality college education at scale is what a lot of these innovations are trying to do. I mean, I’m grossly simplifying, but Western Governor’s is able to offer a very affordable education in part because of what they’ve done with that unbundled faculty role. You can have a coach or a mentor who has a master’s degree, not a Ph.D., who is located, not in Washington D.C. but some place more affordable, who you can pay less than you would pay a tenured track professor to work directly with a student. I think that allows them to do a scalable low-tuition model. And I think where it hits the real tough piece here, I mean, I think we all agree it would be ideal if we could offer an affordable job at the end of the process, a college education to everybody that’s face-to-face, that allows you to explore and to find what you want to do and do all of that without racking up a lot of debt. I think everyone in the country wants that and wants that for their children and themselves. We’re not there right now. The default rate for African American students who borrow is 50%. I mean, we are…there are a lot of problems in American higher education. So, and also, we’re talking modalities that for a lot of people, it’s not like they were going to go somewhere else. 

Meredith: Right. 

Fain: You know, the example I was using, the Conagra factory, it was College for America or bust for that student. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: Yeah, and we think about the single parent of three children living in a rural community that simply can’t give away the job and can’t move to go to school…

Fain: Yep. 

Wyatt: Can’t…has to work all day long. And we’re not really great at night schools.


Fain: Yep. And to be able to meet students where they are, that’s kind of the phrase that…

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Meredith: Yep. 

Fain: Gets used a lot, I think a direct assessment program can do that. You lose something in the process, sure, and that’s where it gets really tough. 

Meredith: Yeah, weighing the advantages of affordability and accessibility versus some of the disadvantages that come with direct assessment. 

Fain: Just real quick on that, one thing I thought that Capella does that’s so smart, because they have a competency-based entire, all of their programs, students can move back and forth a little easier. If direct assessment’s not working out for you, you can go to the more standard, more direct-contact-with-instructors competency-based program. And you know, frankly, the federal rules don’t make that very easy either. You can’t do a hybrid program right now. I mean, I think if you can make this a less risky endeavor for students where if it’s not working out you can move to a different program without losing credits, it’s probably the best way to go. 

Wyatt: Paul, you probably understand this as well as anybody because you’re not administering it, you’re questioning everybody that’s doing it, writing about it, and as my dad used to say, “You don’t understand anything until you’ve written about it.” 

Meredith: [Laughs] 

Fain: Yeah. 

Wyatt: Because it’s the process of writing that other people can understand that forces us to really get the point clear in our own heads. Where do you think this is going?

Fain: That’s a great question. 

Wyatt: Where do you think we’ll be in 10 years or 15 years? 

Fain: You know, about 10 years ago, I went to go see a competency-based program in action, a face-to-face one, where they did a pretty aggressive interview with a student about what they knew, a bunch of faculty members and granted prior learning credits and helped place them in programs and it kind of just clicked for me. These were a couple of adult students who were career changers that I watched doing this process and it was…I could see the value in how different it is, frankly. So, yeah. I mean, I’m going to make a bold prediction here, but I think people should be watching competency-based education because I think the addition to kind of the growth of these programs and the kind of adopters who are trying this, that’s one thing, but the underlying potentially transformative change to higher education on the whole, if it’s more competency-focused, is enormous. And you know, there’s bipartisan interest in shaping our federal policy and probably at the state level, too, to be more amenable to that. So, I think the kind of…the rising tide of a focus on competencies will have a substantial impact on higher education in the next ten years. And I think you’re going to see more…one thing I’ll say briefly, Western Governor’s figured out a business model and a structure. Most other places haven’t done that, I think. We’ve done some reporting on how we haven’t kind of figured out the price point and how to do this at what scale. I think other places are going to catch up and you’ll see more successful [inaudible]. 

Wyatt: Well, these innovations either die or they become exponential. 

Fain: Yep. 

Wyatt: Exponential growth. We’re saying even here in Utah, the policy makers are asking us to look at these things and they’re studying them more. So, it feels like it’s growing. 

Meredith: Yeah, like this is going to take root, not die away. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Meredith: This will be the exponential growth version of what you just said.  

Fain: In some industries, employers like this. They get this, they want to be part of this process more, they want to understand more what goes into a credential. You know, IT, advanced manufacturing, hospitality, you can see a couple of fields where this is really primed to take off and I think that employer interest shouldn’t be discounted in predicting how big it could get. 

Wyatt: We had an interesting conversation recently with a faculty member that was about creating a hybrid sort of program where you’re face-to-face and online and ultimately where we landed was a recognition of there are just some people who cannot come to a campus, period. 

Fain: Yeah. 

Wyatt: And some value financial stability for the university or the institution and see the growth of these programs being financially good, but I have found that even among business-type faculty members, that’s not a value that they hold. The value they hold tends to be more social justice, upward mobility and what ultimately gets everybody is, I really do want everyone to be successful, not just those select, privileged few who have the ability to take out four years or five years out of their life and go to a campus,” because not everybody can do that. 

Fain: Absolutely. You know, one experiment to watch on competency-based education is happening in California right now. The state allocated a bunch of money for the community college system to try a fully competency-based online college that will be sub degree. So, no degrees, all certificates, and they’re aimed at 25-35 year olds, what they call “the stranded worker,” people who can’t get to a campus, are stuck in a dead end job and could benefit from a credential. The work is really hard and it’s not clear that they’ll pull this off, but you can see the need. The degree attainment rates for some populations in California are terrible. 

Meredith: Yep. 

Fain: The stakes are pretty high here. I think it’s definitely worth watching experiments trying to expand access in ways that people haven’t been able to take advantage of. 

Wyatt: Yeah, well, and a degree is a ticket. It’s a ticket to success, and it feels to me like we should be doing everything in our power to broaden the number of people who can get those tickets. 

Fain: Absolutely. And to do it in a way, though, that the credential that they earn is stackable. That they can continue on in their studies at another institutions without losing a lot of credit…importable. To give a competency-based degree that’s done with Google at a community college, let’s say, that you can take into a different job and they recognize it. Those are big challenges that require some systems changed. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Fain: That people are working on. We’re not there yet, but we’re working on it.  

Wyatt: Well, this has been really interesting and I wish you’d have given us some bold projection, Paul. [All laugh]

Fain: Well, I want to keep my job. [All laugh]

Wyatt: Well, I have felt that as we’ve kind of cracked this over the last several years, it seems to me anyway, and Steve and I have spent a long time talking about it, but it seems like within about 10 or 15 years or so, 15 or 20, that at least half of the degrees with be non-traditionally given. Online or something different than face-to-face. It’s just something that…

Fain: I would second that. 

Wyatt: You agree with that?

Fain: Yeah, it seems hard to believe that someone won’t figure this out in a really scalable way. And just even the interest politically, and it’s not just coming from one side, they’re trying to do things differently. I’ve got to feel like something is going to happen. 

Wyatt: Well, yeah. And some of these schools have lofty goals. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: Steve, what did Western Governor’s say? A goal of…

Meredith: They have a goal of a million students. 

Wyatt: One million students. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Fain: Yeah. 

Wyatt: If they can do that, that’s the equivalent of a large number…

Meredith: Yep. 

Wyatt: Of face-to-face schools. We’re 11,000. How many 11,000 universities would be put out of business if one online program could serve a million?

Fain: Yeah, I agree. And you know, just listening to Western Governor’s just talk about what they can do, a kind of tailored, customized credential with a big employer…wow. That seems very…that seems like a powerful thing to offer. And they’re not the only ones that are really good at it, but Southern New Hampshire, Arizona State - - there are others that are pushing pretty far…pushing the envelope on this stuff. 

Wyatt: Well, thank you very much. 

Fain: Thank you. 

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We’ve had as our guest today Paul Fain who is a reporter and news editor at Inside Higher Ed. Paul joined us by phone from his office in Washington, D.C. and we thank Paul for the discussion, which has been stimulating, and we thank you, our loyal listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back again next week with another podcast. That’s for listening, bye bye.