New Directions for Higher Education: Q&A with CAEL’s Tate on Prior Learning, Competency-Based Ed

In this installment of NEJHE‘s New Directions for Higher Education series, Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing & Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, interviews Pamela Tate, president and CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).

NEJHE launched the series in 2013 to examine emerging issues, trends and ideas that have an impact on higher education policies, programs and practices. Click here to read previous installments of this series.

The context

The convergence of forces and events affecting higher education today, including the push for college completion, has created momentum for serious discussion on the role “prior learning assessment” (PLA) might play in student learning and achievement.

The practice of granting college credit for learning and knowledge gained outside the traditional academic setting goes back decades, with roots in the G.I. Bill and World War II veterans who earned credits for military training.

With many different approaches to utilizing prior learning assessment to earn college credit— including portfolio assessments, challenge exams, and credit recommendations for military or corporate training—considerable attention is being placed on competency-based programs. In a competency-based approach, a college may grant credit hours or even a degree if individuals can use knowledge gained on a job to pass a college-assessment test without requiring them to spend time in class. Students in competency based education (CBE) programs typically learn and progress at their own pace, using learning from life and work experience.

The U.S. Department of Education recently gave PLA and CBE a boost by exploring federal aid eligibility to colleges experimenting with these strategies. With the intent of encouraging “better, faster and more flexible” pathways to academic credentials and jobs, proponents of PLA and CBE assert that this federal program could help lay the groundwork for regulation and legislation better-suited to CBE. The writing may be on the wall for widespread acceptance, with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s pronouncement in a statement about competency-based degree programs: “While such programs are now the exception, I want them to be the norm.”

While some see PLA and CBE becoming the rule rather than the exception, others express reservations. American Council of Education President Molly Corbett Broad says the academy is skeptical because it assumes that college classroom is not the sole place where college-level learning occurs. More outspoken critics see PLA and CBE as representing a diminished higher education experience for students. Johann N. Neem, associate professor of history at Western Washington University, has written: “For most students, the experience of being in a physical classroom on a campus with other students and faculty remains vital to what it means to get a college education.”

Here, Tate addresses questions on the nation’s growing interest in PLA and CBE and what higher education leaders can do to prepare for the future challenges and opportunities related to this changing landscape. Since becoming president and CEO of CAEL in 1990, Tate has become nationally recognized for her involvement in public policy, innovative workforce education services for employers, adult learners, and systemic change efforts within higher education.

The interview

DiSalvio: Some note that the greatest risk to traditional higher education is the growing interest in competency-based or prior-learning education models. Could you explain the source of this alarm?

Tate: I think the source of the alarm is different for prior-learning assessment than it is for competency-based education. On the prior-learning assessment side, what most people are concerned about is that it will take students away from the classroom. The fear is that it will reduce the participation of students in courses. And further, that the faculty will have less of a role in the students’ education because so much of the learning will be coming from outside the classroom.

The quality question that is frequently raised is: “How do we know that the student really has this knowledge?” But when you get under that question, you find that the concern is really that the faculty will not have the same control over a student’s learning as they would if it were under their auspices in their classrooms, internships or research. So there is some reasonable amount of alarm over faculty loss of control. Usually that makes its way into a quality argument. But it’s often really about the issue of control, rather than quality.

On the financial side, there is fear that prior-learning assessment will diminish full-time equivalent enrollment generation. The financial concern and the faculty concern are very closely related. The financial issue is related to the potential loss of credits—and revenue—generated within the institution. These are legitimate concerns, but what we try to demonstrate is that people, in fact, don’t take fewer credits, but rather tend to take more credits because they stay in school longer and are more likely to graduate. They tend to persist and this means the institution will not lose the revenue.

The issue of loss of control is usually dealt with by faculty getting more experience with portfolios of prior learning. Faculty realize that the judgment about whether the person has the knowledge and the skill is actually under their control or some other faculty expert in the subject area. While the student may not have learned the content and gained the skill under their tutelage, faculty still have control over whether the person gets the credit.

DiSalvio: Do you believe traditional higher education is in danger of disappearing?

Tate: There are a number of people who actually do think that higher education, as we know it, will disappear because of disruptive innovations such as online learning and competency-based education. I’m not among that group. I think what may disappear are some of the smaller, less well-endowed institutions that don’t have state tax subsidies and a constituency base to ensure their financial viability. I do think there will be some shrinking in the number of higher education institutions in the country, but I don’t think that there is any likelihood that higher education institutions are in danger of disappearing. If so, it will be a long time into the future because a college degree is still the currency that most employers look for in determining whether somebody is worthy of hiring. Yes, there are more and more industry-related credentials. Yes, there are some who are questioning the value of a college degree. But if one really looks at hiring practices around the country–and we know these practices up close–there is still a heavy reliance on a college credential for many jobs. I don’t think that’s going to change for some time.

The competency-based education movement, while related to prior-learning assessment, is much more pervasive in terms of its potential effect on the very structure of higher education because when somebody introduces a competency-based approach to a curriculum, it can affect students of all ages. You are measuring what someone knows—not where they learned it—and you are letting them prove their competence in a variety of ways. You might, for example, be learning it in a work-study job while you’re a freshman in college and from that work-study job, you could pass a particular competency in a curriculum. It is simply a way to demonstrate competence outside of the traditional way of taking a course. So in my view, while it is a transformational idea with a growing higher education interest, it presents a real challenge for colleges about what this means for organizing curriculum and for determining faculty compensation and tuition rates. There is a good deal of alarm that CBE will reduce the evaluation of students to simply skill assessment and not to measuring knowledge and conceptual ability.

But if competency-based programs are done the right way at the bachelor’s level, they will recognize intellectual competencies and not just skills. When you look at some of the really interesting competence frameworks that are being used by liberal arts institutions, they are every bit as likely to use valid and reliable tests that measure intellectual and conceptual knowledge as they are to test technical skills. Competencies are not simply skills and I think there is still a lot of confusion about that. Skills are only one component of competency and center on what someone can do and how the person does it. A competency is larger: what one knows and can do with what one knows, and how that person is able to apply this in different contexts. A competency might be looked at as a bundle of attributes such as skills, knowledge, or values that relate to each other to create the richness and ability for a person to act effectively in different settings. A skill is more discrete and simply part of a competency, but by itself doesn’t provide the richness or the variety that competencies do.

DiSalvio: It has been observed that the national college-completion push is a big factor in the growth in prior-learning assessment. Research by CAEL found that adult students with prior-learning credits have higher graduation rates than those without them. How does PLA impact completion rates and could you elaborate on the research conducted by CAEL?

Tate: Our contention that PLA impacts graduation rates had always been anecdotal. We knew that people who go through PLA, in whatever form, were more likely to graduate. We saw it, we heard about it, but we had no hard data. Lumina Foundation awarded us a major grant to explore that question by looking at 48 institutions from different sectors—private and public, two-year and four-year colleges—and studying 62,000 student records over a seven-year period. We compared the people who had gone through PLA with another group, who in the same timeframe did not go through PLA. We then looked at their persistence and their graduation rates.

It was revealing to see that across all types of institutions, students who had gone through a PLA program were 2½ times more likely to graduate. In drilling down on the data, we took a subset of Latino students. Latinos are the fastest growing demographic group in our country today, and Latinos on average have lower educational attainment rates than non-Latinos. The country will not be able to meet its overall degree completion goals without improving the degree completion of this large and growing population. Interestingly, we found that they were 8 times more likely to graduate from college if they had gone through a PLA program. The subset of the Latinos was approximately 7,000 people. So obviously it wasn’t the biggest portion of the 62,000, but a large enough number that we thought was significant.

In questioning the senior administrators at these 48 colleges, we asked about their perceptions regarding these findings. They confirmed what we had assumed—that PLA taps into student motivation and self-esteem, with students generally feeling more confident they can do college work. It was relatively consistent across the board that PLA appears to improve completion rates and this has to do with a sort of self-efficacy that comes from the process.

To explore whether these perceptions are correct, we are doing a follow-up study with 10 institutions that have a significant number of Latinos going through PLA. We are interviewing these students to find out the effect PLA has on their interest in persistence and graduation. We have institutions from various parts of the country in the study currently and we expect to have the results fairly soon.

The push for increasing national college-completion rates is the reason that so many states are interested in PLA and CBE. It happens to be the financial driver and the reason colleges are taking this seriously. But for us, it’s not about just increasing completion rates. It’s about having adults feel successful in higher education.

DiSalvio: While the benefits of the competency-based approach have been recognized by a number of higher education policymakers as increasing college affordability, there are detractors who take the position that the value of a college degree is diminished. If, in fact, more students earn degrees from institutions where they take fewer courses and interact minimally with professors, isn’t their position valid regarding the diminished value of a college degree?

Tate: CBE does not necessarily mean fewer courses and less interaction with faculty. In our Jumpstart CBE program funded by the Lumina Foundation, where we work with 20 institutions to help them establish CBE programs, we find that it doesn’t necessarily follow that there is less interaction with faculty. In many cases, the competency assessments done by the faculty interacting with the students about their past learning and their next level of learning result in more interaction. When students get into the next course or experience, they’ll often be under the direction of a faculty member to carry out a project or satisfy the competency through some other means. So this view that the college degree will mean less in a CBE environment is erroneous.

If a college degree is going to have coherence, faculty must be involved in the creation of a competence framework, faculty interaction is required to help the students achieve and document the competencies and faculty play a key role in assessing the competencies to determine if students actually have those competencies. So a great deal of faculty interaction exists but of a different type.

While there may, in fact, be less of an instructional role for faculty, the faculty role is not reduced overall—they are mentoring facilitating, gathering resources and assessing. Rather than being purveyors of content, faculty are taking on a different function. So I think what we have is a shifting, rather than a diminishing, of the faculty role. The interaction between faculty and students is not necessarily less.

I hope we can have a broader notion of what CBE actually can mean. I’ve seen it up close in an institution in Chicago. Over the last 40 years, the DePaul University School for New Learning has had a competence-based approach for its undergraduate degree that came along before it was popular. I’ve watched how the faculty interact with the students and how faculty are integrally involved with the students all along the way. The faculty are very involved and frequently changing the competence framework to take into account new knowledge and new information. Many students note that they have more interaction with faculty than in the traditional course mode.

DiSalvio: CAEL has argued that prior learning should be recognized in higher education, even if it doesn’t occur in a traditional classroom. What fundamental changes in the way we look at higher education will have to take place to move CBE into the mainstream?

Tate: Since the currency is the credit hour right now and the credit hour has been linked to time spent, it is a disruption to say that learning outcomes are not based on time, but based on what you know and what you can demonstrate, no matter how long you took to learn it and no matter where you learned it. With that shift comes a change in the teaching and learning paradigm. You have to have faculty that are much more expert in facilitating and assessing learning rather than simply in teaching and purveying content. This causes fundamental changes in the administrative infrastructure that underpins curricula because you have to be able to keep records on competencies achieved in a very different way than how traditional transcripts are done now.

Data collection, in general, is critical because of all the places from which students can get the competencies. Most institutions today going into competence-based approaches are doing it with some sort of technology platform. It may look like a traditional learning management system, but it is a bit more granular in measuring a competency. I think the reason that some faculty get nervous with competency-based recordkeeping is that it forces them to be more specific about what a student should know and demonstrate at the end of a learning unit.

Faculty might feel they are losing autonomy over what they are teaching because it requires a rubric that’s usually more detailed and specific. Some faculty resist and prefer not to do that. Rather, they may be more interested in their subject matter specialty. I think CBE is probably not as easy to operate when you want to be highly entrepreneurial and invent as you go along. This may result in faculty resistance because it is too reductionist and may reduce the amount of freedom that they have today. And, in some ways, it is true that a certain amount of freedom may be lost when faculty are forced to specify what a person should know and be able to demonstrate.

For example, DePaul has established a competence in the biological world and the environment. It is more flexible for the student because they get to pull knowledge from so many potential places, but some faculty might look at this as diminishing their own flexibility in imparting knowledge. I don’t think we talk about that enough. We hear that at the University of Maryland University College, they have transformed some of their curricula into competency models. As they did the work with faculty, they encountered pushback. Faculty commented about the idiosyncratic material they wanted to cover and found it difficult to incorporate that into this CBE structure. We shouldn’t ignore that sentiment. It is a legitimate concern that must be factored into our thinking and planning. We must find ways to allow for more faculty flexibility without narrowing the possibility for a student to receive credit or a competence towards a degree.

DiSalvio: Given the growing interest in CBE and prior learning models, what can higher education leaders do to prepare for the future challenges and opportunities related to this changing landscape?

Tate: I think that with all the new foundation-funded initiatives for PLA and CBE, there should be a push on the academic side of the house for more faculty development so they can better understand what these models really look like.

Many of our leading institutions have made efforts in this regard. Some have formed task forces or have undertaken research to know more about PLA and CBE. Some have worked with national professional organizations to promote PLA and CBE so that the faculty get a firsthand look at what this is all about.

I know when I worked in the SUNY system, we increased the level of faculty understanding about PLA by conducting workshops on every campus. We dispelled the mystery by showing faculty real student-learning portfolios. Faculty then had to review the portfolios and make judgments about them. So, I think what leaders need to do is to get more familiar with what this means on the ground, and understand what the policy implications are of going in this direction, so the institutions can be guided in the right way.

Another area where higher education leaders must keep abreast is student financial aid. If you go too far down the path of not having credit equivalencies, then you have a Title IV financial aid problem. Current financial aid guidelines are based on the credit hour and time spent. So determining whether someone is full or part time and how they are progressing is more straightforward. When time is variable and it is the competency that is the measure, it is much more challenging to determine what level of financial aid the students should be entitled to and even whether they are full or part time. Competency demonstrations can occur at any time and “progress toward degree completion” is based on the mastery of those competencies. This does not fit our system of allocating and tracking financial aid.

So institutional leaders have to look at both the implementation side of PLA and CBE and the federal policy environment as it relates to student financial aid. At the same time, they should keep a parallel system that allows them to pursue CBE efforts while embedding these efforts within a credit-hour framework until such time as student aid regulations change.

Past installments

of the series featured Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing & Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, interviewing:


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