Why ‘potential completers’ should matter to your institution

Competency-based education programs could prove useful to a specific set of students, known as ‘potential completers’

competency-based-education31 million students have left college without earning a degree in the last 20 years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, leaving a huge amount of almost-students degree bereft.

Welcome to the term ‘potential completers’: a specific set of students characterized by a set of personal issues (financial struggles, simple boredom, family concern, lack of time) that forces them to quit a traditional degree pathway, though ideally they’d like to continue with their education.

Many of these people go on to accumulate a respectable skill set after leaving college, enabling them to become experienced “potential completers” down the line, said President of Excelsior College in Albany, New York, Dr. John Ebersole, LPD. “They should be valued and honored.”

For cases like these involving potential completers, could there be an education model that is better suited to their needs?

Enter competency-based education (CBE). Focused on a display of specific skills and abilities as opposed to simply learning the information with abstract testing, CBE could prove far more efficient for potential completers making the most of their time when back in school.

Ebersole, who oversees one of the oldest competency-based programs in the U.S. (which has a highly decorated nursing program that began in 1971), explains that after completing eight mastery exams covering “important benchmarks” related to the field, students can study independently and work as quickly or as slowly as they would like at each step along the way–a good pacing feature for potential completers.

The program culminates with a competency assessment in a real hospital for two and a half days that is overseen by a registered nurse, and tests core competencies decided upon by the industry. Programs similar to this one can be applied to a number of fields, noted Ebersole.

With this model, the time it takes for an experienced worker to earn their degree can be greatly reduced, he explained. And, perhaps best of all, so can the cost.

Since students only have to pay each time they take an exam and then for the final competency assessment, many of Excelsior’s programs allow students to earn their degrees for well under $10,000, which is a stark contrast to the high costs of traditional colleges and universities.

(Next Page: Why competency may not be for everyone; room for improvement)

Even though Ebersole sees CBE as a good fit for older, working students, he does not necessarily see it as beneficial for students right out of high school. In addition to the benefits of younger students going to college and learning how to live amongst new people while receiving a well-balanced education, Ebersole also stresses the important difference between conceptual mastery and applicable competence.

“If you can’t apply what you know, you aren’t competent,” stressed Dr. Ebersole. “Younger students might have mastery, but they haven’t had the opportunity to demonstrate they can apply it yet.”

Also, although competency-based education programs have numerous benefits, there is still room for improvement, mainly due to the need for greater standardization among programs. This issue could lead to a large gap in employability, as major companies may not know what to make of CBE degrees if a standardized system of competencies is not established.

“What’s being assessed needs to be specific to the discipline,” said Ebersole. “We desperately need a clearinghouse…like the University of Maryland did with Quality Matters for the online industry. And employers need to be involved to assist programs with employability.”

For example, if a set of competencies is established within a field and grades can be more uniformly converted from examinations, employers will be able to more easily compare the performance of potential employees coming from competency-based programs to students from traditional colleges, putting CBE students on a more equal playing field in the job hunt, he mused.

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