NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Getting Rid of Credit Hours: Competency-Based Education

October 8, 2014

Traditionally, students move through higher education based upon the amount of time spent in a classroom; a four-year university, for example, takes four years. One student may be far more advanced than another, but largely he is confined to the semester model.

But Anya Kamenetz reports for NPR that schools are beginning to experiment with credit hours and the traditional academic year. In 2013, the Department of Education encouraged schools to develop programs that would measure a student's actual learning, not just the amount of time that he has been in the classroom. With such a model, a student could move along at his own pace -- whether fast or slow -- rather than being confined to the typical semester schedule.

As a result, more than 350 schools are offering, or attempting to create, "competency-based" degree programs. Many say these programs are especially important for non-traditional students -- working adults in need of a degree. For example, the University of Wisconsin offers what it calls the "Flexible Option." The program allows a student (whose average age is 37) to earn one of five degrees while setting his own schedule.

How is competency-based learning different than the self-paced programs that many online colleges have offered for years? According to Kamanetz, students receive credit based on their knowledge of the subject matter, even if that knowledge was acquired outside of the degree program. But Kamanetz notes that without credit hours to establish standards, some are concerned that the programs may turn into "diploma mills."

Source: Anya Kamenetz, "Competency-Based Education: No More Semesters?" NPR, October 7, 2014.


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