The Competency-Based Approach to Validating Learning in Higher Ed

Tuesday, June 18, 2024 - Learning is at the heart of higher ed’s purpose, but how many institutions have a strong sense of the skills and knowledge students are gaining? On this episode, Michael and Jeff welcome two innovators helping colleges to better validate student learning through competency-based education (CBE): Amber Garrison Duncan of the Competency Based Education Network and Kelle Parsons of the American Institutes of Research. They discuss the benefits that this learning and assessment system accrues to students and institutions, the how and why of syncing skills certification with employer needs, and the institutions leading the way on implementation. This episode is made with support from Ascendium Education Group.

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Relevant Links

On Prior Learning Assessment/Credit for Prior Learning: 

CAEL: The PLA Boost

AIR Informing Improved Recognition of Military Learning

CBE & Skills Based Practices Brief: 

AIR Same Idea, Different Evolution: Skills-Based Practices and CBE

Other CBE & Skills Based Practices Research

AIR Measuring Skills at Work: Lessons from the Field

AIR Postsecondary CBE Program Model Mapping Tool

AIR 2020 National Survey of Postsecondary CBE


Michael Horn:

If you're a regular listener of the show, you've heard us talk about the plummeting enrollment in post-secondary education over the past 15 years. There are lots of forces driving it, but a big part of it is that people just haven't been as confident in the value of a degree as perhaps they once were.

Jeff Selingo:

And of course, when it comes to value, Michael, you're talking about not only the cost, which has ballooned over time, of course, but also what you're getting for that money. And I think our recent conversation with Terrell Dunn showed that a big part of what's driving the exodus away from higher ed is that second piece more than ever, people are just questioning how much return they're getting on their investment.

Michael Horn:

And that's perhaps because post-secondary institutions just haven't done a great job showing them what they're getting for their money. At the root of it, people enroll in these programs to learn, but how do students really know what or how much they've learned? And even if they do know Jeff, how do they show that to employers to convert their learning into a good job?

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah. And I don't think there are many colleges out there that would've a good answer to those questions, Michael, despite the countless dollars and hours they spend on their students learning. But our guests today who are leading the charge to better validate learning, have an idea on how to change that. That's all ahead on Future U.


This episode of Future U is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low-income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. For more information, visit Subscribe to Future U wherever you get your podcasts. And if you enjoy the show, share it with your friends so others can discover the conversations we're having about higher education.

Michael Horn:

I am Michael Horn.

Jeff Selingo:

And I'm Jeff Selingo. It's not that there haven't been efforts to measure and communicate learning more effectively in post-secondary ed, it's just a tricky thing to do. Assessing mastery of complex college-level coursework in itself is an undertaking. Add the challenges of coordinating measurements across institutions and between sectors, and it starts to feel really daunting.

Michael Horn:

That's right, Jeff. But our two guests today have tackled those challenges head on. I recently had the chance to catch up Jeff, with Kelle Parsons, a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research. Parsons has written numerous reports in competency-based education, or CBE for short in higher ed. And her most recent research focuses on coordinating CBE with skills-based hiring, which I found fascinating. Jeff, I also had the chance to catch up with Amber Garrison Duncan in that conversation. She's the executive vice president, the competency-based education network, and she too has published extensively on this topic. Amber has also led CBE in skills-based hiring linkages with Walmart and Alabama and within Navajo Nation.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah, Michael, I wasn't able to join you for this interview. But one of the things that I always find interesting, and when we talk about this, you often refer to it as mastery-based education. It's something in higher ed that I don't think most people call mastery-based education. They call it competency-based education. Maybe it's just semantics, but it really does remind me of the differences in terms of how we talk about online education, digital education in terms of distance education. Do those subtle differences matter? Do how we talk about it, does it matter?

Michael Horn:

Yeah, it's a great question, Jeff. And actually, if you had gone back maybe 10 years ago, you would've seen that I only called it competency-based education or competency-based learning. And the reason why is because in federal policy, in both K-12 and higher education, competency-based is the phrase that is actually used in policy. And so mastery-based learning isn't something you actually see in policy. The reason I've moved to mastery-based learning, frankly, I think competency-based education sounds very wonky to people that are not familiar with it. And mastery-based connotes the idea that I don't think is always clear in competency-based education to people, which is it's about demonstrating mastery of what you're learning before you move on. And sometimes I think when competency-based education... And to be clear, this isn't what I hear from Amber and Kelle, but what I hear from people in higher ed is, "Oh yeah, we've defined the competencies."

So we're doing competency-based education, right? We've spelled out what people need to know and do, even if they don't actually all have to master it to pass the class. And to me, that's not what we're really talking about here, but it's why I've personally made the shift. Sal Khan has made that shift, like a few of us who are trying to talk perhaps to a wider audience have made that shift. Now, Jeff, I will tell you there are some people that say they are different things. Mastery-based learning is not just competencies. It could be base routine knowledge, right? And stuff like that. To me, that's getting in the weeds, and I don't make that distinction, but I agree it's confusing because there's this alphabet soup sometimes of terms to your point online education, but the federal government only tracks distance learning, right? And so you sort of have these weird categories that don't quite match up to what we're talking about.

One last thing, just for what it's worth is that I do think also in higher education when we're talking about competency-based education, we're often talking about direct assessment, which we'll get into in the interview. But this notion that we can assess things that you have done before you even get into the higher ed experience, K-12, in theory, we should move to that. But that's generally not what we're talking about in the K-12 arena, because for better or worse, educators tend to assume learning only occurs in the K-12 classroom. I'd love them to get it beyond that, but that's not how they often think. Does that make sense, Jeff?

Jeff Selingo:

It does. Thanks, Michael.

Michael Horn:

Kelle and Amber, welcome to Future U.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Thank you, Michael. Thanks for having us today.

Kelle Parsons:

Yes, thanks for having us. Glad to be here.

Michael Horn:

You bet. You bet. So competency-based education, as you both likely know, is one of my favorite topics. But let's set the stage for our listeners who perhaps are not as familiar with it. And Amber, let me start with you here. How do you define what competency-based education is and how does the role of assessment change in it?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Absolutely. That's a great question. Competency-based education is a pedagogical model actually that has been around for a long time. If any of you are fans of Benjamin Bloom, it's really tied into mastery-based learning. But it really turns that theoretical model into a way where learners can progress through their program based on their ability to demonstrate mastery. So it is very much centered on learning. Again, those competencies, the entire program is then crafted based on those competencies. And again, learners progress as soon as they demonstrate mastery. It provides a lot of flexibility for learners too, because the curriculum is preset. Again, they can move through that at their own pace, dependent upon what's going on in their lives. So it's a really forward-thinking model.

But to think about the role of assessment in that is because your progression is based on, again, your ability to demonstrate and perform the knowledge, the skills, the behaviors, and in the context by which you need to demonstrate that competency. And so assessment really shifts from what our traditional models have looked at with multiple-choice tests or thinking about looking at test of knowledge. We're really shifting into application and making sure that that performance is in the most authentic setting. So CBE really allows us to pull in work-based learning. It allows us to recognize learning that comes from other places because it is about that demonstration. So again, assessment is at the crux at the core of the CBE program, and it looks very different from what we've traditionally done in higher ed.

Michael Horn:

So let's stay on this, Amber, just for one more beat, because as you've started to explain the nuts and bolts of this, I'd love you to describe how it's playing out in the post-secondary education context specifically. And who's validating the learning, how are they going about doing that? And maybe describe current practice around those things, but also what the ideal in your view would be and where should we be moving toward and who's validating the learning?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Absolutely. And this is just such a timely question, Michael, around the validation of learning competency skills that's in the narrative and the public narrative even at this point. And so in a CBE model, as we've been shifting in higher ed and into this, we did start early on with faculty creating the curriculum, faculty doing the assessment, faculty at the still very much again at the core. But what we advocate for is that there are external partners involved in that conversation and crafting what the competencies are and crafting what the demonstrations of that competency looks like. So institutions will sit down with, again, employers and say, "What does it mean to demonstrate that to you? What do you ask people to do again on the job? Describe the context for me so I can create assessments that mirror that exact work." And then a practice that's starting to take hold is the use of virtual reality simulations to actually ask students to demonstrate that competency using those simulations, using virtual reality.

But then we have a couple of institutions that are really pushing the needle on this question and are doing... Certainly there's formative assessments in a CBE program, but Texas A&M Commerce instance, the summative competency demonstrations in their criminal justice program are done by the employer saying, you're the ultimate judge of if somebody has really mastered this is ready to earn their degree and ready to go to work for you tomorrow. And so having the employer sit with the faculty and do that actual assessment, building even more trust in that validation as we go. So I think the point I would say here is if we're going to move to skills and competencies, it's about building trust, and that's through assessment is how we do that. And so that external partnership is really key. Again, in constructing the competency statements, what it means to demonstrate that what the evidence of demonstration needs to look like so that we give the right assessments that produce that evidence for that employer to be able to do the hiring with, if that makes sense.

Michael Horn:

Yeah. No, it's exciting, frankly, and as they say, trust is the coin of the realm. I want to turn to you, Kelle, because one of the things that comes out of these post-secondary institutions using competency based education is not only are they measuring the learning then that happens in their classes perhaps, but also... And not only the learning that occurs in the workplace, but also the learning that their students come in with, the mastery that they already have. And in the latter case, this is often aim as at giving students credit for their prior learning. So maybe this is straightforward, the first part of this, but I'd love you just to spell out for students, what are the different benefits that using CBE in those ways starts to offer and what's in it then for the colleges and universities as well?

Kelle Parsons:

Yeah. Well, you're exactly right that CBE offers a framework for better recognizing prior learning. So prior learning assessment has been around for quite some time in traditional programs as well. There's a lot of research from our friends at KALE, from some of my colleagues related to military learning that offers a lot of benefits in terms of making sure people, especially adult learners, feel like their work has been recognized and may have potentially sense of belonging, and it helps them achieve their degree more quickly in some cases. But there are some limitations. When PLAs only applied at the beginning of a traditional program, CBE offers an opportunity.

Because you have articulated the specific competencies as part of the program, you can give credit via that either assessment at the front end or as part of baked into the CBE program directly, rather than saying, "Ooh, that was part of that course." And we could give you credit for part of that course, that three credit course that we decided was a bundle and instead give credit for a full competency. So that's really significant in terms of all the benefits that we think come with PLA plus time to degree, sense of achievement, things like that. So I think that's where I would start. In terms of institutions, that's actually a much trickier question.

There's a lot of institutions who might feel like there's not a huge benefit to giving credit currently, right? They might say, "Oh, that's less time, for instance, that we're able... Depending on how they charge students that we're able to charge for instruction or for learning sport for instance." But there are plenty of studies that point to the idea that students do want that and are beginning to consider that as part of their enrollment. Or more commonly, if they had known that there were many studies with current adult learners, say if they had known that they would not be getting credit, they might have tried to make a different decision. So I think institutions potentially seeing that as a recruitment and engagement tool to help boost enrollment and make adult learners feel comfortable that enrolling that may be a particular benefit.

Michael Horn:

Super interesting. So Amber, I want to get your take on this as well, although as Kelle was talking, it occurs to me that by defining these competencies up front, we sort of cut through the three vs four year degree debate that's going on in the moment and say, maybe that's not the right question, but I want to go to you because obviously regearing assessments in the ways that we're describing require some big changes for colleges, and that takes time and resources. But what's your case to post-secondary institutions that, look, this is in your interest, this is in your financial interest, this is something worth doing.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Sure. A couple things that I would say on the... And I'll start with the credit for prior learning piece because something we're learning, we have a statewide assessment center that we've helped the state of Illinois launch in early child care education. And certainly because we define the competency, but because the performance is there and we understand what it means to demonstrate that on the job, we're targeting 13,000 early child care workers who are currently working in the field as paraprofessionals but do not have a credential and giving them a virtual simulation that they can take earning anywhere from five to 12 credits to any of the 76 colleges or universities in the state of Illinois. That's the type of power that demonstration, a performance-based assessment shifts us from, let me give you a paper and pencil test and let me just say show up and do what you do on the job.

You're already doing it. Just show me. And then I can say, "Great, let's move you on..." Again, in the ways Kelle said. So those institutions now have 13,000 more people they could be recruiting to come to their institutions than they did before. It's bringing people in. So the unlock here is how does assessment stop becoming a gatekeeper and stop being about mobility and opportunity? Same way in the progress, so those learners now go into CBE programs in the state, all the way up to a master's degree. You can progress at your pace of mastery almost to a doctorate, right? So that starting to see learners again, see value in the education, being able to go and progress through their learning is just creating, again, huge amounts of access for people that traditionally wouldn't have been served.

So again, if I'm an institution, I'm thinking of my enrollments, I'm thinking of employer trust back to that you're now a preferred talent provider in the ecosystem, and employers are really going to tap into you for that. They're going to want to partner with you more. We also know that it has benefits around giving and endowments to growth and things that now these employers are going to want to invest in you as a talent ecosystem. And then if your state has performance-based funding models, you get extra money when those learners complete. And if they're completing faster or more likely to complete because of this type of program, again, your institution really stands to benefit from that.

Michael Horn:

Wow, okay. So that's super helpful. Now, education institutions of course, aren't the only stakeholders here, and we've touched on students as well, but employers of course have a major interest in more effectively certifying skills. Some, as we know are trying to move in a direction where they have their own competency based paradigm and skills-based hiring, as you pointed out in your recent brief on this topic, Kelle. And there are also though a few challenges to this, of course. One of them that I've seen in my own research is that outside of the technical skills, frankly, employers don't seem to really know what the skills are at the heart of successful employees, nor do they have common definitions even internally for what these skills often mean. So I'm curious if A, you would agree with that characterization. Maybe you've seen something different, but B, what efforts are afoot to solve that part of the equation that you're seeing, Kelle?

Kelle Parsons:

Great question. So I don't think I disagree. I think it varies tremendously, much like of course it would, right? But there's a big difference between the employers that have the resources to really invest and lead on this, and then the rest of employers who maybe don't have that kind of set of resources available to them. So I think the importance of external resources like some of the centers popping up are very, very important. That said, I think a key point of your statement there is actually just that this is not as simple as removing degree qualifications from your job postings.

That is, it's sort of implied in what you said, but it's worth making explicit. It's not that simple. It is instead that you have to develop a framework for the skills that you really do need. I'm sure there's absolutely other steps, but my colleague and I, she works with employers who are working on skills-based practices. We said, "Wow, there's a lot of commonalities between CBE and that effort." And we found some of the same problems in terms of being able to articulate the skills. Faculty have that same problem sometimes in degree programs.

Then going through the process of saying, "How will we assess that?" And we were just talking as she was making the point that those have to be legally defensible too. So they have to be ways that you can assess those skills for your own use, and you need to be prepared to make those legally defensible because hiring, of course is a really important HR decision. So I think that you're spot on. And then all of those implementation questions become questions about whether we will live up to the potential ideal of doing this. So there's a lot of ideas around this could massively improve access to jobs for job seekers. This could be a strategy for equity in terms of at least it knocks down some of the known barriers. But if we don't do that well, we don't yet have great research about whether that will actually come true when we get to all those implementation decisions about, okay, how will we assess these skills? So hopefully that answers your question.

Michael Horn:

No, this is fascinating. I'm learning a ton from this. And there's a second part of this question, and Amber, I'm going to let you weigh in just a moment. But Kelle, let me stay with you here for just a moment, which is that the second part is really how do we then make sure that the competency based education from the institutions that are validating learning in the labor marketplace actually syncs up, right? With the skills-based hiring and these CBE degrees and certifications really start to carry more and more weight in the marketplace. How do you think about getting those to sync up?

Kelle Parsons:

Ooh, that's such an incredibly important question, and I am excited to hear Amber's answer too. But we sort of say skills and competencies as if everyone will define them similarly, but that's not necessarily the case, right? We need employers, and this will require employers and institutions to be in conversation about how do we define those things? Because if CBE programs build themselves and use different kinds of definitions or even just approaches to articulating those competencies that don't... That might still have a lot of benefits for learners and that it's transparent to them what they're learning and why.

But if they need to be able to articulate that to an employers too, and if employers have used different definition, different ways of framing skills for instance, that's going to be an important gap because the ability to articulate your skills to employers is going to be a really critical bridge to making this work together. That is not to say that only we should only teach things that are really valuable to employers. There's other things you want to include in a degree program for sure, but you do want to make sure that there's some kind of consistency and that's going to be a really important development in the field, I think in the next five to 10 years, I hope or sooner-

Michael Horn:

Yeah. No, love that reflection, that it's also not just the employment. The other thing that occurs to me as you're saying this is if I reflect Amber back on what you said around the performance at some level there's a taxonomy of what we call it, but there's also the reality, can you just do the job? You obviously have recently launched the Center for Skills, which seems to be an effort to tackle a lot of this. So love your read of the state of play and how we sync all this up.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yeah, absolutely. And Kelle is spot on. This is a moment for CBE. I'll just be fully frank, is that as employers are wanting to shift to skills, the institutions and the graduates that can show up with validated skills are coming from CBE programs. And I also want to reiterate that I don't hear any employer saying, "We don't want get rid of." We're getting degree requirements as a qualification, but that doesn't mean we... We want to know what skills are in degrees. We just want to know what skills are, where are you coming from? I don't care where you learned it. I will still look at people with degrees. So I want to make sure that that is also a narrative for higher ed to hear, because I think there's some backlash of like, are you saying to get rid of degrees? And that's not what I'm hearing.

I was in DC a week ago with 25 of the country's largest employers saying they just want to be able to look at skills. They're still investing in their talent to go back to education and get up skilled and do those things. So that's really, really critical. But I do hear employers understanding a little bit more their role to Kelle's point of saying, what is it that I need on the job? What does that look like? Again, that demonstration look like. And for the first time in that room, I heard this, which was pretty amazing. Right now we try to do this through job descriptions. We go and we're like, what do people have to do in the job description? And those are pretty crappy too. But the employer turned it... The HR professional for a large hospitality organization turned to me and said, "What if I gave you the rubrics we use for performance assessment on the job?"

And I said, "That's amazing. That is the clearest thing that you can give me about what you expect people to be able to know and do, and the context in which they have to do it multiple times. That's what I need to assess." And to Kelle's... I want to just hit this home too. What I heard them also saying is... And Michael, to your point, I think they're recognizing technical skills. The other thing I heard is from McDonald's, they're like, "I don't expect you to understand the temperature to cook the french fries too. Why would you know that? That's such a technical skill? I will teach you that." It is the other skills around every single one of them because this is all retail, talked about conflict and managing conflict and deescalating situations and being able to do some things, we would say soft skills, right? Of like, how do I do that?

Because those are performance-based things, we can assess them. And I think that's at the crux where this involvement, the Center for Skills really is about pulling all those people together at the intersection who have to agree on this and say, "What are the skills? How do we define them? How do we have, again, demonstrations?" And then building trust through our assessments that we're measuring the right things. Because to Kelle's point, it's hard for employers to do that validation themselves. There's legal pieces if you're a big company, but what we hear from the small employers is like, "I just don't have time. I don't even have an HR manager." I would like to use skills, but if you give them to me in a validated way, small and medium-sized employers are liking the learning and employment records. So we've been supporting the largest statewide demonstration of LERs in the state of Alabama.

And every citizen has an opportunity to have their skills that have been validated by faculty and in a wallet to share digitally with employers. And what we also heard from those employers is they trust the faculty. So I want my higher ed friends to know that. They said, "I trust that, but I just need to be able to see it transparently what it is that someone again knows, is able to do the context in which they applied it." So that'll allow me to see if that's the same as what I'm looking for. So I do think we'll still learn a lot about all of this, but there are very big bright spots of both large employers moving this direction, but also states investing in this shift in a meaningful way to sure that public infrastructure is in place for skills validation and skills translation. So people can find each other, find their next education opportunity, find their next job much easier.

Michael Horn:

You're both making me feel really excited and better about all of this. So last question as we wrap up here, which is a bit of a lightning round because clearly true CBE is not yet the norm in higher ed, but it is happening, where... Just name a couple bright spots that we should be watching the institutions and innovators doing the best work or maybe coming into this scene, right? That we should be attuned to. I love both of your views on this. Amber, why don't you go first and then Kelle, you can follow right on top of that.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Sure. I think some of the... Well, I'll just say, this most recent iteration of CBE is 10 years old, right? In 10 years, the progress we've made to me is moving the Tit... Everyone talks about higher ed's, the Titanic, and you're trying to flip it. I'm like, we did a quarter turn in 10 years. I'm pretty sure we've... When you look at the number of institutions and number of programs, it's pretty impressive that higher ed has been this responsive in a way that it traditionally hasn't been. The other bright spots for me are we're seeing more system level. Again, states investing in this. So the California Community College system has a direct assessment pilot with eight institutions who are currently applying for direct assessment permission from the Department of Ed. We also are seeing our large research universities get into this. So the University of Kansas is building CBE programs. We're starting to work with Nebraska. So you're just starting to see what I might call mainstream institutions and organizations saying, "This is the future, this is where we've got to go." And that's pretty impressive.

Michael Horn:

Terrific. Kelle?

Kelle Parsons:

Yeah. And I would add on, in addition to those kind of pushing the future, I would say that there's some... We are there. We aren't very far on research about outcomes yet in competency based education programs. We are just starting. There's a group trying to get there that includes folks who do assessments and applied research. And so we're making progress, but I think I would point to some of the institutions who have been on the forefront of sharing their data about students and their outcomes. So some of those include Texas A&M Commerce, which is a four-year regional comprehensive institution in Texas.

They've been very transparent. Salt Lake City Community College has been excellent in both sharing their data and just doing a lot to help other institutions think about implementation in the community college context. University of Wisconsin Flex program, again, and I'd also say Capella, they've been very transparent. They've worked with external folks, but also put out their own research on how their students fare, which I think is a really important development in the field. And yes, it's important to build trust with employers and things, but it's also really important to build trust with policymakers and others that this is something that leads to good outcomes for students. So I would add those to the list, which is really exciting to see.

Michael Horn:

Yeah, terrific set of thoughts and thank you both for joining us for this fascinating conversation. And we'll be right back on Future U.

This episode of Future U is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. Ascendium believes that system level change and a student centric approach are important for our nation's efforts to boost post-secondary education and workforce training opportunities. That's why their philanthropy aims to remove systemic barriers faced by these learners. Specifically first generation students, incarcerated adults, veterans, students of color, adult learners, and rural community members. For more information, visit

Welcome back to Future U and Jeff's now rejoining us after my interview with Amber and Kelle. And Jeff, obviously people listening to the show know this is one of my favorite topics-

Jeff Selingo:

No doubt about it.

Michael Horn:

And I even took some... Yeah, no doubt. And I took some chances even in the interview to opine a bit while I was asking questions. So I want to start with you on this so you can get in here because you've been spending a fair bit of time over the past few months in the conversation around whether creditors will allow for a three years Bachelor's degree. And one of the big questions that I think that comes down to is really what is a bachelor's degree? And when I ask it that way, it sounds almost stupidly simple, but it's actually quite hard to answer. Is it 120 credit hours? Is that all the bachelor's degree is or is it something else? Is there a set of outcomes or even just outputs that we can define it by? And it seems to me anyway that the work Amber and Kelle are delving into here around validating learning maybe could help us move past this three versus four year degree conversation. But what are your thoughts on this? Where are we in this debate and can this conversation help?

Jeff Selingo:

Well, Michael, it's certainly a debate. Twice in the last year, I've ended up in the middle of this debate in your home of New England where I think this is really playing out more than anywhere else. And it's as simple as institutions there are kind of against the idea, and they're working with their accreditor, NECHE, saying that you can't call anything shorter than a four year, 120 credit degree, a bachelor's degree. Basically, the critics, again, especially in New England, are saying, "Okay, you want to offer a 90 credit degree or a 96 credit degree? Sure, go ahead. But don't call it a bachelor's degree because it's not 120 credits." Now, this whole debate would kind of be funny if it weren't so sad because we both know that the seat-time of the 120 credits of a bachelor's degree certainly doesn't certified learning, doesn't mean that someone actually learned something.

So I really liked what Amber and Kelle laid out in terms of competency based learning and working with external partners, including employers, to certify that learning. As Amber said, how does assessment stop being a gatekeeper and how does progress stop being a gatekeeper? We really have to focus on what is keeping students from either starting college or finishing college. And I really do think that CBE serves students who wouldn't have otherwise been served by higher education. And I think the same is true with these three year degree programs. Now, before I moderated a discussion on this at a gathering, Merrimack of schools recently that were kind of weighing the three-year degree, and Merrimack is one of those schools that's weighing the three-year degree. Our mutual friend Paul Leblanc, wrote to me with a framework that I think you'd like. He asked, "Well, what is the job to be done of the three-year degree?"

Because he said Southern New Hampshire tried a three-year degree years ago and basically did it by squeezing four years, so 120 credits into three. And as he said, that's not the job that students wanted. They wanted the four-year maturation process, the experience of a four-year college. But simply put, as I told Paul, I don't think this three year degree is serving the same audience. First, it's a different degree just in terms of credits. And I think there will be someone who wants a shorter degree. And I think that's going to be an audience that colleges and universities not only need to serve, but as they look at declining enrollments and lower percentages of high school students going on to college, they're going to have to come up with something different. And why can't we create a product, essentially a product line, CBE shorter degrees, marry them together, maybe marry them with a lot of the other things that we've been talking about on this show this past year.

You add in apprenticeships or more hands-on learning to that three year degree, and it becomes an entirely different product that serves a number of students who don't want necessarily or can't afford that four year maturation process that Paul was talking about. So at the end of the day, I think that the three-year degree doesn't serve the same audience as the four-year degree, especially one that doesn't try to squeeze four years into three. Now, Michael, I want to go to the other side of this question because you've been making the point for a while that employers don't really know what skills are at the heart of successful employees outside of the technical skills. And you've been making that point for a while and that you can't just take the skills listed in the job description as an accurate list of skills that are actually in demand. So did you learn anything from Kelle and Amber's answers on this topic?

Michael Horn:

Yeah, you bet, Jeff. One of the things that we observed in our upcoming book, Job Moves, which is out in November, is that the purpose of the modern job description is really to give legal and HR departments more flexibility and protection, not to bring in employees who will actually thrive. And given the litigious nature of decisions around employment in our society, we also noted that, look, this is probably unlikely to change anytime soon. And so I thought it was telling that Kelle made the point that any hiring practices, they have to be legally defensible. And I think that's right. But then Amber's story about the HR professional from a large hospitality org turning to her at a conference and saying, "What if I gave you the rubrics we use for performance assessment on the job?" Now, I think, Jeff, that's really interesting because now you're... As she said, giving real information about what you expect people to be able to know and do and the context in which they have to do it multiple times.

And that's what we're trying to understand here, I think. And so from my perspective, employers don't actually need to know what the skills are called underlying those different tasks. They just need to spell out what they want the employee to do and how they evaluate them. And then in my view, educators, colleges, universities, training programs, you get the idea, they get to invest in figuring out how do we help someone be able to do those things. Which means that they're going to have to identify the underlying skills for people to learn and how to get them there. And I think it echoes one of the big points in our book, which is that hiring managers in our view, they're really going to have to work around Jeff, today's vague, bloated job descriptions to make good matches between people and roles.

And one way of doing that, I think, is to spell out what the employees are going to be doing day to day, what are the actual experiences in the role, not all the jargon we have right now. In essence, focus on what someone will do, which is actually something I think we actually do pretty well today in contract agreements for gig workers.

And it just gets around this question of like, are we spelling out what they need to have? Now, last question from me, Jeff, as we move through the back half of this show, which is we talk a lot about the biggest competency-based provider, a fair bit on Future U, and that's Western Governors University. And I'm just curious, were you surprised in their answers with how many colleges and universities that they named doing meaningful competency-based education, and do you have any thoughts on the schools and the programs that they named?

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah, Michael, before I get to that though, I do want to just jump on something that you just said around kind of connecting these to the rubrics that employers use for performance assessments on the job. Because in talking to some people for my new book about how they hire, right? They talk about how so many of the skills now are moving so quickly that what they want to know, especially from students coming out of college is, A, have you done this type of work before? Have you done the job? And as we know, that's why students who have done internships or do hands-on learning or do apprenticeships or co-ops are so much more successful in the post-college job market because they actually have done most of these jobs. But the other thing they're asking for is like, well, how do you learn... For example, if a new piece of software comes out, tell me how you learn a new piece of software.

Describe that process to me. So at least they know are these potential employees that they're willing to hire, do they know how to learn? And so I think it's really important tying back those rubrics that you use for performance assessments on the job back to potentially how you assess learning. I think that would be really, really powerful. Now, going back to your question about the thoughts on the number of schools beyond Western Governors, I really like the way that Kelle put it, that mainstream institutions and organizations are saying, "This is the future and this is where we've got to go." And perhaps Western Governors, WGU is a great example, but it really does also suck up all the oxygen in the room. And I say that in the nicest way possible. It's like how we talk about online education, right? ASU, WGU, SNU really suck up all the oxygen in the room, and I don't think necessarily allow us to raise the profile of schools also doing interesting things in these areas.

And when we talk about academic innovation in particular these days, I mean even at GSV, and maybe you'll disagree with me. But when I look at the program and when I look at the sessions that are most packed at ASU, GSV, it's mostly about online, it's about micro certifications, alternative certifications, different types of certifications for skills. The sessions on CBE, A, they don't seem to be as many of them. And second, they don't seem to be as crowded, when I've gone to them in the past. There's just not enough. We're not talking about CBE enough, I think, in terms of academic innovation, and I'm not sure why. I'm not sure why we can't make this part of the portfolio the same way we talk about online education. But if I'm leading an institution and I'm thinking about academic innovation, it surely would be part of my toolkit.

And if I were trying to figure out how to get this to be adopted more at my institution, I'd probably think about three things. One is literacy about CBE, because I still think that there are a lot of misconceptions about it. And secondly, I just don't think people know enough about it. This is still kind of a fringe topic, I think for a lot of traditional colleges and universities and college and university leaders I talk to. So how do we increase the literacy about CBE so that we give everybody more of a basic understanding? Second, I think that we need to start with the... Just like we do with online education, just like we do with, to be honest with you, so much of academic innovation. I think we need to start with the early adopters on campus. Is there a coalition of the willing on campus who are willing to experiment with CBE, maybe find an employer, a local employer, that are willing to work with you?

And so that you're not trying to boil the ocean here. You're not trying to put CBE in place across the entire institution, but maybe you're picking a couple of programs that are working with a couple of specific employers. And you match those up to the student segments, right? I'm reminded again of this recent report that came out from the Georgetown Center on Education and the workforce that talked about certificates that are not lined up with a local employment market. And so it's all great if colleges and universities want to do CBE, and maybe they do have early adopters within the faculty, but if you don't match that up to student demand for a different kind of credential or a different kind of way to earn the credential, then you're going to create programs again that nobody necessarily wants.

And with that, we're going to close out this episode of Future U. Thanks to Amber Garrison Duncan and Kelle Parsons for joining Michael for that really fascinating interview. And thank you for joining us on Future U. Again, you could follow me or Michael on social media. Use the Google Machine to find us on the interwebs, also follow Future U Podcast where you could follow Future U on social media, as well as get our newsletter. And please be sure to rate us and comment on us on your favorite podcasting platform because that helps other people find out about Future U. Until next time, thanks for joining us on Future U.

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