Wisconsin’s Competency-Based Degree Could Be the Beginning of the End For College Admissions

For all the attention given to MOOCs and other higher education reforms, there’s been little to suggest that the powers that be are willing to upend the basic system of granting relatively expensive degrees to a limited number of students who excel in high school. The University of Wisconsin’s decision to award competency-based degrees to those who pass school-sanctioned exams is different. It the first specific initiative with the potential to shatter the stringent norms that bind the rigid structure of elite higher education institutions.

For the last century the basic story of higher education was that colleges had to offer a limited number of degrees because there were only so many students who could fit in a classroom. Because of these physical limitations, schools created admissions standards to efficiently limit the number of students on campus. The result was that if you didn’t excel in high school, it was nearly impossible to earn a degree from a top university.

In the last 10 years these physical constraints have begun to vanish. The core educational experience of listening to a professor speak can be had from any location by an unlimited number of students. Technology is even uprooting and opening up those beneficial elements of college life that have stronger ties to physical campus (e.g. clubs, labs, tutoring, etc.).

In a world where educational materials are available to anyone, it ought to be possible for anyone, at any time in their life, to demonstrate the competency necessary to earn a degree from any university. Yet there was always been one thing holding this future back: Colleges remained committed to the idea that it was only through the physical classroom that students could gain the expertise necessary to merit a degree. Of course there’s no reason this should be the case. Given the choice between somebody who passed a series of classes or somebody who passed a difficult and comprehensive exam designed to test for the knowledge taught in those classes, I’m not sure there’s a convincing reason to always prefer the first candidate. Wisconsin’s decision to offer a competency-based degree makes them the first esteemed University to acknowledge this fact.

Here’s the question Wisconsin’s decision brings up: If the new path the school has laid out should continue and expand, what might the future look like? What happens when knowledge is universally available and the opportunity to prove that knowledge is no longer based on being in a physical location or high school achievement.

Ultimately, I think the result would be a future without college admissions. In a world where universities have no physical limitations, a system that prevents certain people from pursuing a degree will appear increasingly unjust. In the end universities will allow anybody to take their competency exams. Schools will preserve their reputations through the difficulty and/or cost of their exams, and they may also continue to admit a limited number of students who will be able to take part in the traditional campus life. But the chance to earn a degree will be open to anybody. That means somebody from Ohio could stay home and have a traditional college life at Kent State, while at the same time acquiring the knowledge that allows them to earn a degree from Harvard.

This is a world we should eagerly embrace. By separating the traditional college lifestyle from the acquisition of professional credentials we will finally stop imposing an expensive 4-year experience on those who don’t fit into that mold. Most importantly, the cost of higher education will shift from learning to credentialing. Perhaps the greatest drawback of our current system is that you can’t “try” college. You have to plan to make a 4-year investment when there’s a real possibility you’ll emerge with nothing. A system where you only pay to take exams delays the costs of an education until you’re at the doorstop of acquiring what you actually wanted to pay for.

The end of college admissions is also the only hope of freeing our K-12 education system to experiment, adapt, and break out of a rigid framework designed to maximize the number of respectable college applications. When futures can no longer be harmed by poor standardized test scores the immense pressure on elementary schools will begin to lift, and we’ll finally be free to focus on developing productive, well-adjusted adults, rather than 17-year-olds who can take the SATs.

The great drawback of this new system is that we would seemingly lose everything college offers outside the classroom walls. Many would miss out on social experiences, clubs, cultural events, leadership opportunities, and faculty mentors. However, there’s no reason we can’t still have all that. Content learning will be decoupled from these other drivers of personal development, but we can still create systems and organizations where this development takes place. For example, high school graduates could join programs modeled after Peace Corps where they would learn valuable life skills while having time to take online classes. Similarly, “college” could exist within a company — groups of young people who collaborate on projects while taking online classes, but instead of paying, they get paid. I have no doubt that society could come up with numerous environments for positive youth development that would be better than college campuses because they wouldn’t have to fit inside the university mold. Ultimately, eliminating physical classes will allow us to improve on the college experience by creating more variation in the developmental experiences young people can have. It’s likely that admissions-type structures will eventually develop around these experiences, but the variety of programs and the open nature of higher education should makes the stakes significantly lower than they are now.

None of this is to say that granting cheap degrees to anybody who can pass a test is sure to create a utopia. But the potential benefits appear to outweigh the costs, particularly for those in the lower quartiles of the income distribution. Wisconsin and the schools that follow should proceed carefully, but this seems like a “shots fired” moment for those who want to bring radical change to the higher education system.

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