Each morning, [Terry] Crosgrove clocks in for the 5:30 a.m. shift packaging Slim Jims at a ConAgra plant in Troy, Ohio. On days off, he chips away at an associate degree offered through an experimental online program at Southern New Hampshire University. The low-cost, self-paced education lacks courses and traditional professors. Instead, students progress by showing mastery of 120 “competencies,” such as “can use logic, reasoning, and analysis to address a business problem.”
The program is an important guinea pig. The U.S. Department of Education recently allowed Southern New Hampshire to become the first university eligible to award federal aid for a program untethered from the credit hour, the time-based unit that underlies courses and degrees. [Emphasis added.] The move, wrote one advocate, “could signal a new era for higher education.”
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at $36-billion the world’s largest private grant-making foundation, has done much to orchestrate that new era. Its largess and sway helped get Southern New Hampshire’s program off the ground, supported a key think-tank report that advocated moving beyond the credit hour, and helped persuade a risk-averse Education Department to open federal coffers to competency-based education.
So what’s the problem with that?
Higher-education analysts who aren’t on board, forced to compete with the din of Gates-financed advocacy and journalism, find themselves shut out of the conversation. Academic researchers who have spent years studying higher education see their expertise bypassed as Gates moves aggressively to develop strategies for reform.
Some experts have complained that the Gates foundation approaches higher education as an engineering problem to be solved. Most important, some leaders and analysts are uneasy about the future that Gates is buying: a system of education designed for maximum measurability, delivered increasingly through technology, and—these critics say—narrowly focused on equipping students for short-term employability.
Critics fear that the focus on quickly pumping more students through the system could encourage colleges to water down requirements or turn away applicants who might struggle. Already some feel it has prompted community colleges to churn out too many graduates with short-term certificates that polish the colleges’ completion numbers but offer dubious long-term value to students. Eventually, critics worry, the foundation’s efforts to promote access and completion could actually increase social divisions by creating separate and unequal programs.
This is a fascinating article chronicling a growing debate, read it HERE. Be sure to read the comments, they are always quite a bit of fun.