Starting next fall, Purdue University will become the first public institution in the state to offer a degree program based on competency and not credit hours.
The Indiana Commission for Higher Education last week approved Purdue’s Bachelor of Science in Transdisciplinary Studies degree, which will be offered through the school’s Polytechnic Institute.
The degree is one of the state’s first examples of competency-based education, or “direct assessment”— a form of learning that awards students for skills they display rather than the credit hours they receive.
“[Competency-based] programs can look different from college to college and state to state, but what they all have in common is a move away from a typical seat-time credit measurement of what students know to really a project-based demonstration of student knowledge,” says commission spokesperson Stephanie Wilson. “Instead of progressing according to the hours you spend in the classroom or the credit you earn, you progress based on the knowledge you can demonstrate and the skills you bring to the table.”
Polytechnic Institute Dean Gary Bertoline says the program can be compared to earning merit badges.
“You get a badge for lighting a fire with sticks, you can either do it or you can’t,” he says. “You can’t earn a badge until you can actually light a fire with sticks. The same idea goes with competencies.”
Students will create e-portfolios to demonstrate their competence in multiple categories, such as ethical reasoning and systems thinking.
However, a hundred years of educational institutions is difficult to unseat completely.
While it’s easier for certain distance-learning and online schools such as Western Governors University to implement competency-based programs, more traditional four-year schools are bogged down by decades’ worth of administrative conventions.
For example, most financial aid is based on grades and credit hours, and it’s difficult to find an employer that isn’t curious about a job candidate’s GPA.
The result is what Wilson and Bertoline call a “blended” approach: While the skills learned by students are the primary focus of the program, Purdue will offer a more traditional transcript alongside the e-portfolio.
Despite the difficulties that come with direct assessment degree programs, proponents say they’re invaluable for both students and potential employers.
Employers “want to see a more granular level of the knowledge a student has,” says Berlotine. A direct assessment-based model showcases more completely students’ strengths, giving employers more confidence when it comes to the hiring process.
Additionally, Wilson says the degree’s flexibility serves as a valuable asset for schools that are seeing their numbers of traditional four-year students shrink.
“We have to expand our model of what higher education looks like,” she explains, noting that there are 750 thousand “returning adult” students going to college in Indiana. “It’s not just your 18-25 year olds, it’s not just your traditional four-year campus college experience, or four-year or even two-year degrees…It’s all kinds of needs that we have to be able to accommodate, and competency-based education is one that helps us expand that and prepare everybody.”
Two other Big Ten schools are currently offering direct assessment-based curricula.