Blog: The Educated Reporter

A Chance to Earn College Credit for What You Already Know

Lipscomb University's Competency Assessment and Development Center in Nashville, Tenn. 
Photo credit: Melissa Bailey

A car salesman, a secretary and a military vet filed into a conference room for a new kind of high-stakes test – one that could earn them up to 30 college credits in a single day.

These three strangers joined three others at a horseshoe of tables, where three evaluators would monitor their every move for eight hours. The students are among an estimated 940,000 people in Tennessee who started college but never finished. They showed up in May at the Lipscomb University Competency Assessment and Development Center, the first of its kind in the nation to award college credits through a behavior-based test.

Journalists attending EWA’s 67th National Seminar at nearby Vanderbilt University in Nashville had an opportunity to tour the Lipscomb center in May, and learn more about its approach to competency-based education.

The CORE (Customized, Outcome-based, Relevant Education) program, which launched a year ago, is part of a broader shift in colleges and universities toward competency-based learning, where students earn credit by demonstrating mastery of certain skills instead of by passing classes based on time spent in a classroom (“seat time”).

While some programs focus purely on academic knowledge, Lipscomb measures the soft skills of how students deal with each other. Throughout the daylong exam, students are thrown into scenarios that might face in real life, such as handling an inbox of office emails and working in a group to develop a company policy on sexual harassment. As they interact, evaluators judge their performance on 15 competencies, such as “active listening,” “assertiveness” and “conflict management.”

Students each pay $1,500 to take the test. If they do well, they stand to earn up to 30 college credits, saving $17,000 in college tuition, according to Charla Long, dean of Lipscomb’s College of Professional Studies.

Long explained the program from an observation room, where reporters watched the test in progress through a one-way mirror. The evaluators, who determine whether the candidates should receive college credit, are three Lipscomb faculty members who receive 16 hours of training before stepping into the evaluation room, Long said. As students moved through an exercise in setting workplace policy, the evaluators took extensive handwritten notes on how they interacted.

Long offered her own observations to the journalists: Candidate D, a 50-year-old administrative assistant with 15 community-college credit hours, had taken control of the conversation. She could earn points for being assertive, Long observed. Meanwhile, the military vet’s eyes were “glazed over,” hurting her active listening score. The car salesman got up to get a drink of water – an action that evaluators would carefully jot down as well.

A small-business owner, who had remained quiet, piped up to offer his take on how the company could accept feedback from employees: It could set up a “drop box” for anonymous notes.

“He’s a problem-solver,” noted Long. Problem-solving is one key competency on which students are rated.

As the conversation proceeded, Candidate D appeared to be in danger of crossing the threshold of appropriate assertiveness. “She’s talking too much,” Long said. That could lose her points.

After Tuesday’s test, evaluators were set to meet the following day to score all six students on each competency on a scale of 0 to 4. Students who score poorly in any of the 15 competencies will have the chance to make them up through online courses and another behavioral test, Long said. They can also proceed with other online courses to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Long said the competencies were chosen from among those developed by the Polaris Competency Assessment System, which is used by major companies such as Nike, Disney and Wendy’s. The system allows companies to measure the skills they need from their employees and train them to improve in those areas.

Lipscomb’s competency-based program aims to help more Tennesseans access the benefits of a college degree – and to ensure that those degrees mean something in the workplace, Long said. She said the traditional bachelor’s degree is not aligned with the skills employers are looking for, such as the abilities to solve problems and be a team player.

“Higher ed does not talk the language of employers,” Long said.

Only 7 percent of companies believe their employees left college ready for the workplace, she said. Meanwhile, students who started college and then stopped are hesitant to make the investment in returning if it won’t lead to a job, she said: “They want to ensure if they go back, it’ll help on the other end.”

Lipscomb’s CORE program, which launched a year ago, is set to graduate its first students with bachelor’s degrees in August, Long said. It’s one of many competency-based programs that are emerging across the country as part of an effort to reduce the cost of college, increase access for nontraditional and disadvantaged students, better align the college degree to the workplace, and increase the number and proportion of people with postsecondary degrees.

Long suggested that as reporters examine competency-based programs in their own communities, they ask a few key questions: Are the competencies (such as “active listening” and “problem-solving”) clearly articulated? Are the competencies scored on a scale (Lipscomb uses a 0-4 point scale, so a student can be rated as a Level 2 active listener) or through a check-box matrix? And does the program focus just on content knowledge, or does it also include the “soft skills” that employers are looking for?


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