Leadership & Governance

Lessons From a Competency-Based Education Experiment

Paul LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire University

May 28, 2015

Produced by Julia Schmalz and Carmen Mendoza

Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, has become a leading proponent of competency-based education, a way to award degrees based on testing and portfolios rather than "seat-time" in a traditional course. Last year the university started a competency-based degree program, called College for America, that has enrolled about 2,000 students. Mr. LeBlanc has been in Washington to counsel the U.S. Department of Education on the issue, as part of a three-month assignment as a senior adviser to the under secretary of education, Ted Mitchell. He stopped by The Chronicle's offices recently to talk about his vision of competency-based education and what has surprised him from his college's own experiment.



JEFFREY R. YOUNG: We're talking today with Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University and now currently on a three-month leave to be at the Department of Education as a senior advisor. Thanks for being here.

PAUL J. LEBLANC: It's a pleasure to be here, Jeff.

JEFFREY R. YOUNG: Competency-based education, you're a big proponent. It's been in the news. It's a buzzword. What's the big idea here, though?

PAUL J. LEBLANC: Fundamentally, I think it's to flip the what I sometimes called the Higgs boson particle of the credit hour. If you think about it, the credit hour is very good at telling us how long people have sat, not so good at telling us what they've actually learned. And in that model, time is pretty fixed. Student enrolls in a traditional 14-, 15-week course. What they learn is by variable. People get C's, B's, and A's. We're either better or not at assessment.

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When you flip that in a competency-based model, what happens is that learning becomes fixed and non-negotiable, and time becomes the variable. So people love the stories of speed. So somebody who says, hey, I was a bookkeeper in my family business for many years, and I know these math competencies, and I can do this, and I can show you that within two weeks. And we say, great, why would we make you sit through 12 more weeks? Let's move on.

I think also equally important are the stories of the person who takes a year and a half to master the writing competency. Because what we're saying, in that case, to the labor market is, we're not graduating somebody who can't do what we claim. And right now I think what we're seeing is a lot of students being passed through, a lot of lack of clarity around the claims for student learning, hazy assessment, and fundamentally, a growing distrust from the labor market that we're actually producing students who can do what we say they can when we say they can.

JEFFREY R. YOUNG: I guess there's an interesting kind of framing that you're doing that automatically kind of-- the rhetoric of competency-based even can upset some faculty members I've talked to, because learning, especially at the higher ed level, it's pretty tough to measure, right? I mean, there's more going on than just facts coming into a student's brain. What would you say to critics who worry that even casting, moving toward this direction kind of puts too much emphasis on bean counting and not enough on other things?

PAUL J. LEBLANC: Sure. So one is that we don't want to have a reductionist definition of what a competency is. So competency is, fundamentally, a combination of what students know, the skills they have acquired, and then what they can do with it. And it's the what they can do with it that's sort of where competency moves us. What I think your question sort of points to is the frequent notion that but a lot of learning has to do with the spaces in between classes. It's the conversation with the faculty members.

So one is we're committing the frequent sin of confusing versions of higher education. So that version tends to be situated in the residential campus. Traditionally, it's students where the coming-of-age experience is almost as important as the academics. And they certainly overlap a lot. The place where competency-based education is taking hold is with the adults who are juggling work, and family, and trying to get better skills, looking for more secure work, looking for better-paying work. They want to take better care of their families. Adult learners, as you know, they've had all the coming-of-age they can handle. Right?

They need this thing. They need this credential. They need these skills. They need these competencies. Their employers talk in terms of competencies. So I think we can romanticize a piece of this. I think that we have to recognize that students come to us with very different needs. So for the 18-year-old, residential campuses aren't going away anytime soon. If the competency-based movement forces traditional residential education to be clear about the claims it makes for learning and it forces it to do a better job of showing how we know, that's a good thing. That will lift their game.

JEFFREY R. YOUNG: And I think maybe this will help define it a little bit. Listeners will be happy to hear that residential colleges aren't going away.

PAUL J. LEBLANC: Some people think they are. I don't.

JEFFREY R. YOUNG: [LAUGHS] But where does this end? So you mentioned adult learners. But are there certain subjects that can't be done in this way in your view? Where are the bounds?

PAUL J. LEBLANC: So it's easier, obviously, where performance is more readily measured, right? So we can do this in accounting. We can do this in IT. We can do this, in some cases, health care. It gets harder if you're talking about-- and this is sort of the classic example. We all say, I teach philosophy, so what does assessment look like that? Are my students going to have to prove the existence of God or not? Right? What does that sort of assessment look like? What's coming?

But in reality, philosophers are some of the-- that's some of the best training of the mind possible. We make claims for our philosophy students. We should be able to say what those claims are, and we should be able to say how we know. And that's fundamentally what sort of competency-based education forces us to do.

Philosophers would say that their graduates can do things. What things? What are they good at? And I would argue again-- I just had this conversation with someone who's a philosophy major, recent graduate. Best training of the mind possible. Just no one ever says that to me. It's like, are you kidding me? Logic, the ability to problem solve. All employers talk about critical thinking. Is there better training? So it's just feeling better about ourself at the end of the conversation.

JEFFREY R. YOUNG: Is there a discipline that can't be made into a competency-based education?

PAUL J. LEBLANC: So part of this issue is with the word "competency." And people sometimes are troubled by that. So what do you do with music, for example? Theoretically, anyone coming into a conservatory program is already competent.


PAUL J. LEBLANC: Right? So we ask for music training to do other kinds of things. So there's levels of mastery. There's nuance. There is practice. There is being immersed in the discipline. So yeah, you're right. I think we don't quite well know the boundaries. But the idea that you can't build competency-based programs for the humanities is a fallacy.

JEFFREY R. YOUNG: So your College for America at Southern New Hampshire has been going since last year. You've got--

PAUL J. LEBLANC: Year and a half now.

JEFFREY R. YOUNG: --a couple thousand folks enrolled.

PAUL J. LEBLANC: Yup. Closing in on 2,000.

JEFFREY R. YOUNG: What has been the biggest surprise as you've taken this big idea and put it into practice?

PAUL J. LEBLANC: So one is what you've been asking, what we've been talking about, which is that the students really often gravitate towards the humanities within that framework of competencies. So some of the favorite projects have to do with art history, ethics.

JEFFREY R. YOUNG: So you didn't expect that.

PAUL J. LEBLANC: No, because I think, you know, these are adults, they're working, we specifically targeted people in the lower end of the wage scale. So these are often people not making family-sustaining wages. So we thought, they're going to be very practical. They need to get this credential done. They're going to say, give me the skills so I can move on. But in fact, where we find them sort of spending a lot of time in reveling is in the sort of other conversations. And it would make a traditionally-minded academic feel good to see it. So that's one surprise.

Second is how often, when we ask people, why are you doing this? So obviously, I want a better job comes up all the time -- your best college degree. But as often as not, it's I want my kids to be proud of me. I want my child-- I want my daughter to know that her mom went to college, got a degree. It's common. It's really wonderful to see happen.

JEFFREY R. YOUNG: So you're at this unusual role at the Department of Education here in Washington.


JEFFREY R. YOUNG: Just for three months, you've taken a leave from being the president.

PAUL J. LEBLANC: DC's oldest intern, as I like to say.

JEFFREY R. YOUNG: OK. So what do you hope your impact will be here in Washington?

PAUL J. LEBLANC: So Ted Mitchell, the under secretary, asked me to do a couple of things. One was to help move along the experimental sites and competency-based education. And they were-- "languishing" is the wrong word. But there was some delay, and there was some frustration among the stakeholders. And this was in part because this is still new stuff. We're very early on. We don't even have agreed-upon taxonomies yet-- what counts as a competency-based program. We don't have agreed nomenclature yet. So these are very typical. Could we sort of move the dial?

So this was, in some ways, just a function of putting in some good project management skills and being able to throw some resources, i.e., me, at the task, and then rallying some really good people. And we've moved that along. So by June 1, we will have guidance to all the institutions and to the accreditors. We'll give them what they've been asking for for a while. We're getting some good definitional work. We're in good conversation with the regional accreditors. And they're going to issue some materials that will be helpful. And we're going to just move everything further along, where I think it's been a little bit stuck.

The other project that Ted asked me to work on is thinking hard about how we would bring new non-IHEs into the higher ed ecosystem.

JEFFREY R. YOUNG: Non? People outside of higher education sector?

PAUL J. LEBLANC: Non-institutions. The examples that people often use would be a general assembly, for example.

JEFFREY R. YOUNG: Sure. We wrote about them recently. You mean, the coding schools, so to speak, or the non-traditional.

PAUL J. LEBLANC: Yeah. They tend to like to think of themselves as something more than a coding school. But yes, same place. Or MOOCs, for example, who are not Title IV-eligible today. Where you have very good programing, how could we get those programs into the ecosystem, so that students who have financial need could have access to these very good programs, programs that, in many instances, are showing really good results in placing their graduates into jobs.

And what would be the new accreditation pathways or quality assurance we would need to do on these non-traditional providers who don't look like our institutions? How do you not let the bad players in? If you take a look at the sort of major gatherings of the ed tech sector, there are a lot of people who would like to get into the Title IV ecosystem, as I keep calling it.

JEFFREY R. YOUNG: To qualify for federal financial aid for their students.

PAUL J. LEBLANC: Absolutely. So how do you get access to needy students, so they can enroll in these programs? How do you take the innovations that many of them are driving and help sort of move along traditional higher education? How do you improve quality assurance and maybe life the game of accreditors, those who think that they may not be as strong as some would like? How do you do all of that while keeping bad players out of the mix?

JEFFREY R. YOUNG: And you're going to do that in three months. Not bad.

PAUL J. LEBLANC: Nope. So my part of the project was to try to do the conceptual framework. And the people who have to figure out how to execute that are the ones that take up the project tomorrow. Yeah.

JEFFREY R. YOUNG: Well, great. Well, thanks for taking the time to talk about this.

PAUL J. LEBLANC: Oh, no. It's a pleasure to do it.


Jeffrey R. Young writes about technology in education and leads a team exploring new story formats. Follow him on Twitter @jryoung; check out his home page, jeffyoung.net; or try him by email at jeff.young@chronicle.com.