Jonathan Brush faced a dilemma. He was director of admissions at a private, liberal arts college and was watching students take on unsustainable debt to attend college. “I would be making a living off of asking people to make what I would consider a bad financial decision,” he explained.
Brush was right about the debt problem. The Institute for College Access and Success reports that seven of 10 2012 college graduates borrowed money to complete their degrees, owing on average $29,400. Student loan debt is now more than $1.1 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Students, parents, college officials, and policymakers are now examining economical alternatives to the traditional four-year diploma.
Competency-based programs are one alternative. They award college credit for learning done outside of traditional college classes that meet for a set number of weeks. In competency-based programs, students can work as quickly as they want and receive credit for a course whenever they pass an assessment test or project. Although programs differ in particulars, they all measure learning rather than time, says Robert Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University, an online, competency-based school. WGU awarded its first degree in 2000 and now has about 47,000 students who pay a flat rate—about $3,000 for most degree programs—every six months.
For Nicholas Lotts, 30, WGU has been a time- and cost-effective way to work toward a bachelor’s degree in information technology while keeping his full-time job. He earned a traditional associate’s degree right out of high school, but some classes were so tedious he would “literally fall asleep in class” because he knew the material from tinkering with computers on his own. With WGU’s model, he said, “I’m not going over or rehashing stuff that I’m already familiar with.” For example, Lotts discovered his job training in retail management had taught him much of the material in his organizational behavior class, so he only studied for about 10 days before taking the test.
For harder classes, he has learned from WGU course mentors, his own outside sources, and even his colleagues in the University of Cincinnati’s IT department: “I work with other experts.”
The average age of WGU’s student body is 36, but many recent high-school graduates are also foregoing the classroom. Jonathan Brush left his position in college admissions and took a job with CollegePlus, which uses one-on-one coaching to help students create their own paths to college degrees. For an average of $24,000, students earn their degrees through accredited universities—Thomas Edison State College, Liberty University, Moody Bible Institute—collecting credits primarily through a combination of tests and online classes.
Christos Dimoulis, 21, used CollegePlus to earn his history degree from Thomas Edison. He paid about $15,000 total and is beginning law school at Loyola University debt free.
Dimoulis earned the majority of his college credits through College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests, developed by the College Board, and DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST), originally offered to military service members. The tests cost as little as $80 each and Dimoulis used internet resources and college textbooks from the library to prepare. Every two to three weeks he’d take another exam and “just keep racking up the credits.”
Dimoulis said no one at the law firm where he interned or the county circuit courthouse where he aided and shadowed a judge ever looked down on his method of education. In fact, he believes his way of earning a degree gave him an edge when applying for law school: “They’re looking for unique people who have unique experiences.”
Still, convincing people to embrace this new educational path may be difficult. A 2013 Gallup-Lumina poll showed that almost a third of Americans believe a job candidate’s alma mater is very important. Contrast that with the views of business leaders: Only 9 percent of them agreed. That seems to support CollegePlus co-founder Woody Robertson’s view that businesses don’t care where you’ve learned: “They will want proof that you actually have learned it.”
Dimoulis said earning a degree the unconventional way “requires an incredibly regimented and organized student,” traits also important in law school and the workforce. Brush agrees. He says the ability to find, evaluate, and master information quickly in order to pass tests translates into the problem-solving skills required by a rapidly shifting workplace.
Competency-based programs may not offer much help to students who need specialized training. Kaitlyn Rawlings used CollegePlus to earn an English degree, but at 22 she is studying acting at Northern Kentucky University. She says she needs more training than she can get in community theater if she wants to pursue her interest in Christian theater and film. By living at home and working multiple jobs, including dressing up as Disney princesses for birthday parties, she is trying to graduate with no loans.
Traditional colleges will continue to offer four years of living with others and interacting in classrooms, and those that distinguish themselves from the crowd will survive. Traditionalists might not think much of Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., which last December became the first university to award credit for badges based on the Polaris Competency Model, which assesses skills like active listening, organization and planning, and conflict management. Students can earn up to 30 credit hours from the initial, eight-hour assessment.
“Thirty credits?” Some professors will wax sarcastic, but others will remind them about 30 credit hours gained from half-listening to lectures while text-messaging, passing multiple choice tests, and making sports events and parties the centerpieces of the semester. With employers increasingly skeptical about the results of generic education, many colleges will change or die.