In Our Modern World: Is a College Degree Essential?

Thor Anderson
15 December 2017

I went to college. I was told it was essential. Then in graduate school, I came across the idea of competency-based education or CBE. While traditional education is focused on a “let time be constant, while learning will vary” approach, a competency-based model says, “let time be variable, and the measured constant will be demonstrated competency”. So, if competency is the measure employers desire, maybe traditional higher education has it wrong.

Why does it require four years to complete a bachelor’s degree at a university or college? A professor once asked my class that question. The question caught my attention – likely because I had no idea how to answer it.

Here is the answer to that professor’s question: a degree program takes about 4 years because it takes about that long to deliver enough courses to satisfy the credit hour requirement for that degree.

How long would it take to earn a bachelor’s degree if it were awarded based on a student’s mastery of competencies?

Over the years I’ve become a big advocate for CBE. As computer and internet technology has exploded over the last 20 years, the potential learning impact of CBE programs is growing at a rapid pace. One of the primary purposes of forming the Learning Components Research Group (LCRG) is to develop open-source tools, libraries, and frameworks to enable more educators to incorporate competency-based education in both formal and informal instructional settings.

As graduation approaches, many students wonder, “How will my four years in the degree program translate into me having the right amount of acquired skills and knowledge to land a job?” Having been a professor myself, I know these questions are difficult to answer. Universities capture little feedback from local employers or even alumni. The status quo simply remains. Something can be done.

Developing, delivering, and supporting even a small and focused CBE program is a way to provide this needed information. It is also a complex task. The plan of this Research Group is to build a community around the concept of improving instruction through providing a mix of open-source, specialized software tools or “components”. Some components will help with the curriculum design needed for an instructional program focused on competencies. Other components will be focused implementations of eLearning specifications such as those coming from the IMS Global Learning Consortium1. Still other components may focus on forming connections between competencies desired by employers and competencies mastered by learners.

There is no time in this blog to review a history of CBE, but here is a great article covering that ground2. Also, a friend of mine wrote an article that goes in-depth on what CBE might mean for the world of postsecondary credentials3. Stay tuned for additional blog postings and links on this site as LCRG begins publishing a variety of learning components.


2If you would like to read about the history of CBE, here is a good article from the Journal of Competency-Based Education:

3Nice article about CBE and the relationship to Postsecondary Credentials: