There is a natural tug-of-war between two different goals of a college degree—to be well educated or to be employable. Higher education must inspire the ideals of a liberal education and also provide practical skills for aspirational, meaningful employment. In some respects, this is the classic “education” vs. “training” debate. A liberal education without the requisite skills for meaningful employment is a lost opportunity for personal growth and professional development. Graduating with specialized skill sets that make students immediately employable but lacking in higher order skills such as critical thinking, sociocultural awareness and an appreciation of values and ethics locks us into entry-level jobs rather than enabling careers or callings.

Educators need to encourage students to acquire knowledge and skills from their undergraduate experience. We have little difficulty emphasizing the knowledge that our respective majors should possess; it is now time to bring the acquisition of skills and competencies into the spotlight as an additional aspirational goal—not a replacement goal.

Knowledge provides the foundational infrastructure for tasks that we perform throughout our lives. I suggest that (1) knowledge acquisition need not be the singular focus of a college education, and (2) the mere accumulation of knowledge without the ability to apply that knowledge limits the benefits to the individual and to society’s substantial investment. The acquisition of skills should not be lucky happenstance; in my 22nd century model of higher education, skills-based competencies should be the central focus of higher education. Knowledge provides the fuel that powers the skills-based engine, and without fuel we get nowhere. However, fuel without the proper vehicle would be a waste of an opportunity. Listen to Eric Landrum discuss these ideas in his Beyond the Blue podcast.

With the help of cross-disciplinary research in the “scholarship of teaching and learning,” we need an enhanced emphasis on pedagogical practices to help students acquire skills. We need to devote expertise and resources to develop multiple measures of skill competency to assess and document both student achievement and institutional performance. Furthermore, institutions need to value these efforts and acknowledge such advances within promotion and tenure dossiers, as well as develop grant programs to help faculty devote research time to developing skills measures. Grant dollars and course releases often signal important aspects of our academic culture, and thus if skills assessment is ever to be taken seriously by faculty, institutions must value assessment expertise as they value teaching and research.

The work of employer consortia (Conference Board, Partnership for 21st Century Skills), higher education think tanks (Association of American Colleges and Universities, Lumina Foundation, National Institute for Learning and Outcomes Assessment) and blends of the two (Collegiate Employer Research Institute, National Association of Colleges and Employers), leads to a conclusion that college graduates are leaving college in unacceptably large numbers without the requisite skills necessary for workforce success. See the recent lead story in the March 8, 2013 Chronicle of Higher Education for additional confirmations about the lack of preparedness that some college graduate exhibit.

The status quo continues to be a knowledge-centered approach. But knowledge is fleeting, and data about what college students retain after the course is lacking and points to little to no retention at all (see Daniel Willingham’s 2010 book Why Students Don’t Like School for multiple examples from multiple disciplines). Anecdotally, students will often struggle to remember what classes they took in previous semesters, let alone what they learned.

STUDENT-CENTERED, SKILLS-CENTERED COMPETENCY MODEL

The primary goal of higher education should be to assist students to acquire knowledge and develop skills. Knowledge acquisition for the sake of knowledge acquisition, absent application, is akin to hoarding. The ability to receive a perfect score on the SAT or ACT may be impressive, but we should be more concerned about what that student learns to do with that knowledge. Speaking about the apprentice model used in the Middle Ages, Bill Rankin of Abilene Christian University reminds us that “no one fails bread-making.” If you were an apprentice bread-maker, you kept working until you got it right. Graduation should occur when the requisite skills are acquired and can be reliably demonstrated. I suggest that for a 22nd century education, we consider a skills-based competency model rather than the current credit hour model. A student’s transcript is now transformed into an assessment of the proficiency levels (those levels being underdeveloped, developing, effective, distinguished) that a student achieves in those areas regarded as valuable by departments, colleges, and universities. Let’s put an end to the phrase “C’s get degrees.”

In our current credit hour model, students accumulate credit hours into buckets, and if their grades are average (or above) and they put enough credits into enough buckets, they graduate. The curricula are often well conceived with high-level goals in mind, but given the current state of assessment and employer feedback, are we meeting our students’ needs, or are we truly adrift? Are faculty seeing student achievement at the levels we expect? Are we even meeting our own institutional goals? In many ways, we do what we do because we have always done it that way—but that operational model is not unique to higher education.

What I propose here is a transformative shift from a credit hour model to a competency-based model. Rather than ensure that students accumulate 120 credits to graduate, under a competency model, a student must demonstrate key skills in the institution’s requisite areas to graduate. Just as some students in the current credit hour model do not graduate (they did not fill all the buckets), neither would every student in a competency model. Not all students can attain all the key skills designated by the institution as central to graduation; not everyone can be a bread maker. Institutions would need to determine the proficiency levels necessary to graduate. Perhaps a national skills-based proficiency exam might provide colleges and universities baseline data by which to adjust and benchmark an institution’s respective assessment efforts. There are institutions now that are exploring skills-centered approaches, such as the work at Western Governor’s University. But mainstream colleges and universities are not following this radical and innovative approach.

In my 22nd century competency-centered model, when a student achieves the standard set by the college or university with regard to the general education or core curriculum, the student would receive an associate’s degree. When the student achieves the standards for knowledge attainment and skills competency, he or she receives a bachelor’s degree. That might take 120 credits worth of academic work, or 72 credits, 144 credits, or 40 credits. The lynchpin is ability to measure skills with multiple psychologically appropriate measures—an ability we do not possess currently for all desired skills. However, there are models in place and efforts underway to systematically and meaningfully measure skills, but many of these efforts are in their relative infancy. One assessment program in place is a commercial product by ACT called WorkKeys. Also, the National Career Readiness Certificate program provides measures of competency in key skills areas for employers such as reading for information, locating information and applied mathematics. Skills are assessed and categorized into proficiency levels of platinum, gold, silver or bronze. In the 22nd century, a student’s graduation would represent a true capstone involving the meaningful demonstration of skills that the institution values and assesses with vigor.

CREDIT FOR PRIOR EXPERIENCES, PRIOR LEARNING AND TRANSFER STUDENTS

Under a skills/competency model, students’ prior life experiences are particularly relevant. If a student begins college with demonstrable skills, then they are “ahead” (similar to an incoming student having high school Advanced Placement credits). Of course, they need to maintain those skills, and hopefully enhance their skill set. For example, if a marketing executive who gave 100 speeches a year returned to college to become an elementary-school teacher, would we make this returning student take Communication 101? Under a skills/competency model, we do not guess at the answer to that question; if the student achieves the requisite proficiency in an active demonstration of the skill, then they meet the communication requirement for Communication 101. Conversely, if a transfer student has been “core-certified” by another institution, they must still demonstrate the skills required by their new institution. Community colleges might focus more on skill development and less on credit generation; the same holds true for four-year colleges and universities. The emphasis shifts from knowledge possession to knowledge application via demonstrable skills and abilities. An assessment-based model would help ensure that citizens would get more “bang for the buck.”

We do implement a skills/competency model currently in some areas of higher education. In many cases, we do not give students multiple choice tests about how students would write, but faculty have students actually write. Generally speaking, a student’s memorized knowledge about writing rules and grammar seems less important than their ability to write. Many high school Advanced Placement tests go beyond multiple choice testing, asking students to consider multiple concepts and be able to form linkages among seemingly disparate concepts—in writing. At the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University, undergraduate business majors demonstrate their skills in a highly developed and monitored assessment center. Consider a trip to the DMV—a multiple choice test might be in your future, but also a vision test, and more importantly, you demonstrate that you possess the skills to drive by driving a car. A trained observer determines if you have the requisite skills to complete the task safely and correctly. We already have trained professionals who are experts at measuring human behavior by developing sound instruments and measures—they are called social scientists.

From a societal perspective, we invest a great deal to ensure that citizens exhibit the requisite skills to drive a car. But what about critical thinking skills, ethical skills, interpersonal awareness skills, technological literacy skills, sociocultural and international awareness skills, quantitative and qualitative reasoning skills, and so on—there is value in ensuring that citizens, and especially college graduates, possess these skills as well. Imagine the benefits to graduates as well as society if there were assurances about what college graduates know and are able to do. With a 57 percent college completion rate, society’s multi-billion dollar investment in higher education deserves a better return-on-investment.

THE NICHE UNIVERSITY 

This is an opportunity for colleges and universities to carve their own niches. Although think tanks, business groups and other agencies have published good guidelines, For one example see the APA guidelines. ultimately the institutions, disciplines and academic departments would determine the key skills and abilities their graduates would demonstrate. Each school or department would develop measures of skills and learning outcomes, or coordinate discipline-wide efforts to do so. Models exist for some disciplines, such as the NCLEX in Nursing or the PRAXIS in Education; notice that degrees governed by undergraduate accreditation requirements seem to be ‘ahead’ in their ability to ensure the skills of their graduates.

There would need to be a minimum number of credits earned from an institution, such that the institution has enough time to deliver its’ own unique approach to skills development. In other words, a highly accomplished person could not apply to a college or university, take one course, complete all the skills assessments, and graduate with a degree. The college or university needs time to imprint its academic habits of mind or signature pedagogy. For example, there might be a minimum of 32 credits needed to earn the degree (similar to a second-degree seeking student). But the selection of those credit hours would be instrumental, and keyed to a current assessment of student skills compared to the competency levels required to graduate. Institutions would put their own imprint or approach or brand on the skills earned by their students. Want proficiency in creativity—Vanderbilt University might be the choice to specialize in developing creativity skills. Similarly, a student might attend Alverno College to hone critical thinking skills or Abilene Christian University to become proficient in mobile technology as applied to academic life.

MEASUREMENT CHALLENGES

After disciplines, programs and departments identify and articulate the desired skills for their students, the looming challenge is the meaningful measurement of those skills and abilities. Some may posit that the ephemeral aspects of a college education cannot be measured, or that the act of measurement changes the experience. Can we measure a student’s skills and abilities for such nebulous concepts as critical thinking, ethical reasoning, sociocultural awareness, and so on? I tend to agree with the sentiments expressed by William McCall in 1939 his Measurement textbook, when he wrote “Anything that exists, exists in some amount. Anything that exists in some amount can be measured.” After disciplines and departments settle on demonstrable learning outcomes, then the goal is to develop multiple methods of assessing the desired skills and abilities.

Think about what this new century would look like—a college degree becomes a credential of measured and quantified skills from the alma mater. Graduates would have demonstrated proficiencies and competencies, and if departments and disciplines do their homework (which accrediting agencies attempt to ensure), would be poised for success in the workplace of their choice. They would have the tools to succeed in a chosen profession. Electives would be immediately relevant (and not courses “to get out of the way”), because these electives are essential for helping students develop skill-based strengths in areas of weakness. Content alone would no longer drive course selection, but content knowledge and skill development are powerfully intertwined to point students toward success in their academic majors and beyond.

It will take more than four score years to observe the paradigm-shift described here. Institutions work on 5- and 10-year master plans, but this is a four score-plus master plan. A student-centered curriculum is a skills-centered curriculum; a curriculum in which students gain confidence in what they know and what they can do. Faculty will need to embrace the challenge, as faculty have so many times in the past.

What if better educated graduates experienced greater personal success and an enhanced quality of life? And what if we had the measurement tools to clearly document the added value of the collegiate experience (and identify efficient classroom pedagogy too)? Whereas some faculty embrace entrepreneurial challenges, others abhor the notion. An innovative approach will be necessary, and a skills-based revolution may well turn current educational practice on its side. For me, if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem. What good is a college education if the practical application of the knowledge acquired is not recognized, exercised, and applied? That outcome might lead to graduates who are underprepared for the workforce experiencing dissatisfaction with their education—a phenomenon some are calling malemployment. Our collective yet savvy investment in human capital must be redoubled if we are to allow our students, departments, disciplines and institutions to achieve their respective destinies.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.