Unpacking degrees

Chris Dillow questions the purpose and value of a university degree (linked from Observational Epidemiology):

What is university for? I ask this old question because the utilitarian answer which was especially popular in the New Labour years – that the economy needs more graduates – might be becoming less plausible. A new paper by Paul Beaudry and colleagues says (pdf) there has been a “great reversal” in the demand for high cognitive skills in the US since around 2000, and the BLS forecasts that the fastest-growing occupations between now and 2020 will be mostly traditionally non-graduate ones, such as care assistants, fast food workers and truck drivers; Allister Heath thinks a similar thing might be true for the UK.

Nevertheless,we should ask: what function would universities serve in an economy where demand for higher cognitive skills is declining? There are many possibilities:

– A signaling device. A degree tells prospective employers that its holder is intelligent, hard-working and moderately conventional – all attractive qualities.

– Network effects. University teaches you to associate with the sort of people who might have good jobs in future, and might give you the contacts to get such jobs later.

– A lottery ticket.A degree doesn’t guarantee getting a good job. But without one, you have no chance.

– Flexibility. A graduate can stack shelves, and might be more attractive as a shelf-stacker than a non-graduate. Beaudry and colleagues decribe how the falling demand for graduates has caused graduates to displace non-graduates in less skilled jobs.

– Maturation & hidden unemployment. 21-year-olds are more employable than 18-year-olds, simply because they are three years less foolish. In this sense, university lets people pass time without showing up in the unemployment data.

– Consumption benefits. University is a less unpleasant way of spending three years than work. And it can provide a stock of consumption capital which improves the quality of our future leisure. By far the most important thing I learnt at Oxford was a love of Hank Williams and Leonard Cohen.

As the signaling function of the degree falls, we should consider how the signaling power of certificates, competencies, and other innovations may rise to overtake it. With specific knowledge and skills unbundled from each other, these markers may be more responsive to actual demand. More specific assessment metrics can help stakeholders better evaluate different programs of study, while more flexible learning paths can help students more efficiently pursue the knowledge and skills that will be most valuable to them.

From the credit hour to competency-based education and personalized learning

On competency-based education:

Proponents tout this model—which allows students to progress at their own pace by mastering measured “competencies” rather than spending a fixed amount of time in class—as a balm for the ills of academe. It will improve quality and expand access for working adults, they argue, while lowering costs for both colleges and students.

According to a report by Amy Laitinen of the New America Foundation, the credit hour is “the root of many problems plaguing America’s higher-education system” and “doesn’t actually represent learning in any kind of consistently meaningful or discernible way.”

Despite a 2006 clause that allows institutions to award federal financial aid based on “direct assessment” of student learning instead of the credit hour, only now will we have anyone taking advantage of it:

In April, [the Education Department] approved Southern New Hampshire University as the first institution to be eligible for financial aid under this provision. The university is rolling out a self-paced online program that has no traditional courses or professors. Instead, students advance by demonstrating mastery of 120 competencies, such as “can use logic, reasoning, and analysis to address a business problem.”

This paves the way for more educational providers to capitalize on the promise of personalized learning in meeting students’ needs.

Freedom and guidance in competency-based education

According to Paul Fain:

competency-based education… looks nothing like traditional college classes. Perhaps the method’s most revolutionary, and controversial, contribution is a changed role for faculty. Instructors don’t teach, because there are no lectures or any other guided path through course material.

Aside from the narrow view of what constitutes “teaching”, this paints only one version of what competency-based education might look like. Competencies refer to the milestones by which stakeholders assess progress, thus constraining the entry and endpoints but not the paths by which those milestones might be reached. Students could all traverse the same path but at their own pace, or they might follow any of a finite set of well-defined trajectories prescribed by instructional designers. They could also be free to chart their own course through open terrain, whether advised by a personal guide or a generic tour book, perhaps even with prerecorded audio or video highlighting landmarks. Recommended or mandated paths can then be tailored to students’ needs, experiences, and preferences. The extra degrees of freedom mean that competency-based education actually has the potential to enable much more personalized guidance than traditional time-based formats.