Competency-based credentialing: Coming soon to a degree near you

  Much of the recent soul-searching (Lewis, 2007) in higher education can be framed in terms of the seeming disconnect between the things being measured, billed, and credited on the one hand and students’ learning and competence on the other hand. There is a sense that learning, the very thing that we obsess about measuring and quantifying, is getting lost in the process. Students are admitted and evaluated based on test scores; they are billed based on credit hours; they earn a degree based on the number and type of credit hours in which they took and passed tests. While the correlation between these indirect metrics and learning is undeniable, over time, it grew more and more tenuous and fuzzy. The excessive focus on measuring the learning made it costly, ineffective, and often unclear whether any learning was taking place in the process. This risk is most dramatically illustrated in the study conducted by Harry Lewis, former Dean of Harvard College (Lewis, 2007).

The current system is designed for efficiency through standardization. Students interested in earning a degree are given a well defined plan of courses to take. Courses are sized in terms of number of contact hours. Students make progress towards earning their degree by taking classes and passing the exams in these classes. Faculty performance is measured by their capacity to help the students pass the tests and move to next classes. In this model, theoretically all students can complete their degree after they “sit” the prescribed number of hours in classes. Their tuition is also calculated based on the number of credit hours. Learning and competence can be easily lost in this accounting-based system. The students are infantilized; it is very hard for them to get a big picture view or a sense of ownership of their education.

The credit-based system is the archetype model used in academia, but it is by no means the only option or the best option. Several institutions – mostly those with exceptional flexibility and ability to depart from the norms – have been experimenting with competency-based models. In such models, the focus is placed back on the student’s growth, learning, and competence. A degree is conferred when a student attains the necessary competencies through their own individualized purposeful path. Such a system lends itself to full customization to students’ needs and aspirations rather than administrative convenience and efficiency. Because demonstration is no longer tied to seat time in the classroom, students have more say in the composition of their portfolios of competencies and in the pace with which they acquire them. Faculty define the sets of competencies required to earn a degree; they verify and document that a student has acquired and demonstrated a competency; and, most importantly, they serve as dons, mentors, and guides for the students. The faculty create rich learning environments, using their experience and expertise to design and refine these environments. They trust the students and entrust them with their learning. The students compose their portfolio in a manner that makes sense for them.

Because very few places have adopted this, there is no standard for what to bill the students. Possible standards include tuition based on a flat rate, based on the number of competencies, or based on faculty time and effort.

There are many benefits to the competency demonstration-based system. Its focus is on what students have learned rather than how many hours they sat in class. It is much more open and allows students to follow their passions and interests and acquire competencies based on their own intrinsic motivation – with guidance and support from the faculty. Students can also focus on their individual needs, accounting for their diversity in preparation and for prior skills. If they have gaps in preparation, they can get competencies to fill them. If they are advanced, they can get more advanced competencies. Students can also progress at their own pace with the focus on mastery rather than competition. Because competence is a binary concept, students can take risks without irreversible harm. Any competence not acquired yet can still be gained once students demonstrate they’ve earned it. In summary, this system puts the students and their learning at the center and is aligned with the values of the Polytechnic Incubator.

In the Polytechnic Incubator, we are adopting a competency-based system in a two-phased approach.

Phase 1: Traditional Courses, Credits, and Grades + Passport

In the academic year 2014-2015, the students will be using the traditional credit-based system in which they enroll in classes and receive grades. Their transcripts will show courses, credit hours, and grades. In parallel, the faculty are defining sets of competencies associated with these classes and defining challenges by which students can demonstrate mastery in each of the competencies. Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP) has pioneered the effort to create Passport (, an online system for creating, awarding, and managing digital badges associated with competencies. These badges can then be shared on the Mozilla Open Badges system ( The Passport system is both a competency recording system and also a digital portfolio system. For each competency gained, the system stores the work that the students performed to demonstrate their competency. The comprehensive collection of all of these records can be used by the students to organize their portfolio and create subsets for specific purposes.

Phase 2: Full-Fledged Competency-Based Degree + Passport

At the same time as we experiment with Phase 1, we are developing the second phase in which we design the system from scratch around students’ needs and aspirations.

Because of the nature of this endeavor, this is a collaborative effort with the Office of the Registrar. The Registrar is in the best position to identify all current and perceived challenges. We will be working together over the summer to develop in parallel the full Bachelor of Science degree while addressing the logistics and administration required to make the experience and the degree fully competency-based. Students admitted in the Fall of 2015 may then be directly admitted into the new degree and will have a transcript that shows the competencies they acquire throughout their enrollment. Every effort will be made to ensure that students in the 2014 cohort can transfer into the new degree program in a seamless way.

In summary, it is our intent that by Fall 2015 we will have a fully competency-based degree. We realize there are many challenges ahead that are inherent to the transition from a centuries-old system to a new way of doing things. These challenges are real, but not insurmountable. We are confident that we have the expertise, the support, and the will to do this, and we look forward to sharing our success with others throughout the University.

Lewis, H. (2007). Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? Public Affairs; First Edition.

  1. competency based education
  2. Higher education transformation
  3. Innovation

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