A Traditional, Liberal Arts, Competency-Based Education

By Lowry, L. Randolph, III | The Presidency, October 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

A Traditional, Liberal Arts, Competency-Based Education


Lowry, L. Randolph, III, The Presidency


Higher education has traditionally followed a linear learning model that starts with everyone at point A in a classroom and ends at point B with a degree. It has been a model that has successfully educated generations of college students in our country and still has great value.

However, the profile of students is evolving, and as institutions are pressured to keep tuition costs low with fewer federal dollars available for funding, colleges and universities must give consumers innovative options for accessing our product: knowledge that works.

Most successful businesses understand that enduring, highly valued products are those that occasionally must be tailored to fit marketplace need. It is a process that colleges and universities, too, must follow to remain viable, relevant institutions.

Looking at the marketplace, identifying innovative ways to provide access to education, and being agile enough to implement these ideas quickly has become a part of the culture at Lipscomb University (TN). Over the last five years, the university has launched programs for veterans, first-generation students, community college students, and a threeyear degree, among others.

Now, Lipscomb University is one of a small group of universities across the country throwing their mortar boards into the arena of product diversification by launching competency-based degree programs, an emerging concept that has great potential for a segment of the market that is often forgotten: adults who have valuable real-life experiences but have not completed a postsecondary education.

Early Success

Being a pioneer on the frontier of education innovation isn't always easy. New programs always have to withstand the test for quality and value by faculty. They generally have to be implemented quickly by administrators who are often bogged down in the quagmire of a decision-making process that is layers deep. And there is always the risk of "If you build it, will they come?"

Although Lipscomb has offered an adult degree completion program for decades, the competencybased program targeting adult learners launched less than a year ago. The program is offered through Lipscomb's CORE (Customized, Outcome-based, Relevant Evaluation) Competency Assessment and Development Center. It is tied to the nationally recognized Polaris competency-assessment model that has been used by organizations such as Nike; Wendy's International, Inc.; and AT&T.

Lipscomb's program recently became the first to be accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and is one of only a few of its kind in the nation. Students can earn up to 30 credits, following a rigorous behavioral assessment and saving them thousands of dollars in tuition money. These credits apply to any bachelor's degree program. This is a similar concept in theory to the decades-old practice of incoming students receiving college credit through College Level Examination Program (CLEP) and Advanced Placement (AP) tests. Lipscomb also issues digital badges indicating the level of student achievements on competencies, which can be displayed on e-portfolios and social media accounts, or shared with an employer's human resource information management system.

To date, 24 university faculty members, most of whom hold a doctoral degree, have been trained as certified behavioral assessors, and 100 individuals have gone through the assessment center. The feedback from those individuals has been overwhelmingly positive. One student, who enrolled last fall, earned 30 credits through the assessment and also transferred in 34 credits from a local community college. That means she is already halfway through her degree program. For students like this, the reduction in cost, the increase in course choices as a result of proving competency in some lower level courses, and the reduced time element have made a degree possible. And their attendance represents income the university likely would not have received if we had only offered the "point A to point B" approach. …

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