Competency-based learning: A glimpse into the future of higher education?

For better or worse, the higher education experience for many young Millennials and Gen Zers will not resemble the four-year, life-altering experience that we enjoyed—it’s just too costly.

October 16, 2015 |
David Barista
Competency-based learning: A glimpse into the future of higher education?

Photo: Xbxg32000 via Wikimedia Commons

Last year, I had the pleasure of visiting the campus of my alma mater, Eastern Illinois University, in rural Charleston, about 55 miles south of Urbana-Champaign. Not much had changed since I last walked the university’s lush quad more than 17 years ago. Both Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo came and went—the NFL QBs are among several prominent EIU grads to make their mark in the NFL, including Saints head coach Sean Payton—and the school added a sleek fine arts center designed by Antoine Predock.

As professionals working in an industry that requires an advanced degree—in some cases multiple degrees—I’m sure you’ve experienced a similar sticker-shock moment when discussing your alma mater.

But other than the starchitect’s contemporary creation, the campus looked virtually untouched. In a nostalgic mood, this put a smile on my face. My wistful spirit shifted, though, when I learned about the cost of today’s EIU experience. More accurately, my jaw hit the floor. In less than two decades since I graduated, the annual in-state tuition had ballooned 192% to $8,490. Room and board: up 155%, to $8,996. Tack on books, fees, and other expenses, and the average on-campus, four-year degree runs students in excess of $85,000—and EIU remains one of the least-expensive state schools in Illinois.

As professionals working in an industry that requires an advanced degree—in some cases multiple degrees—I’m sure you’ve experienced a similar sticker-shock moment when discussing your alma mater. For those with kids, you’ve probably wondered, as I have: If the buy-in for four-year schools continues to escalate at its current pace, how can I possibly be expected to foot the bill for my child’s higher education? Even worse, how can I sit back and watch my kid take on six figures’ worth of student loan debt?

For better or worse, the higher education experience for many young Millennials and Gen Zers will not resemble the four-year, life-altering experience that we enjoyed—it’s just too costly. Community colleges and commuter schools will play a larger role, as will distance learning. Furthermore, as we wrote about in our August 2015 report on innovation districts (tinyurl.com/InnovationDist), a number of schools are establishing satellite campuses near city centers, to be closer to research and tech firms, and a larger student base.

We’re also likely to see the development of new education models that cater to the masses. A recent article in The Atlantic (tinyurl.com/CutCollegeLectures) details an alternative that’s gaining momentum: competency-based education. Introduced in the late 1990s by nonprofit Western Governors University, the model has since been adopted by dozens of schools, including Purdue, the University of Michigan, DePaul, and the University of Maryland. It breaks the butts-in-seats mold to teaching by moving the process online, where faculty “mentors” guide students, one-on-one, at their own pace, through a series of competencies for a given degree program. Once a student feels they have mastered a subject, they earn credits by passing an exam. 

If the competency-based model does not disrupt higher education, then something else likely will. Does it mean the demise of the traditional school? Certainly not. As a prominent university architect told me recently, “For every American student who can’t afford or chooses not to pay to attend a four-year university, there are two or three foreign students ready to take their place.”

The traditional model is not going anywhere, but new approaches will emerge.

David Barista | Building Team Blog
Building Design+Construction
Editorial Director

David Barista is Editorial Director of Building Design+Construction and BDCnetwork.com, properties that combined reach more than 100,000 commercial building professionals, including architects, engineers, contractors, and building owners. David has covered the U.S. construction industry for more than a decade, previously serving as Editor-in-Chief of BD+C, Professional Builder, Custom Builder, and HousingZone.com. He has won numerous editorial awards, including six Jesse H. Neal Awards and multiple honors from the Construction Writers Association and the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

Email: dbarista@sgcmail.com

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