Author: Stacey Clawson, Senior Program Officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Transcripts have historically been the official record for what a student has learned in college, but do not provide the details employers need regarding what a student knows and can do on the job.
Today, the credential a student earns and the institution’s brand serve as the primary ways institutions signal to employers that students are career-ready. Foundational skills such as critical thinking, teamwork, and problem solving are climbing to the top of employers’ wish lists, yet few institutional measures directly capture these attributes. These demands are driving all parties—students, faculty, institutions, and employers—to explore alternative platforms to capture and report on ‘evidence of learning.’
In today’s rapidly changing labor market, employers are emphasizing the importance of a more sophisticated mix of technical and 21st century skills, even for entry-level positions. Competency-based programs offer the potential to go beyond a limited view of higher education, giving students the opportunity to develop and practice the skills needed for a meaningful career, life, and citizenship.
Redefining Career Readiness
Many colleges and universities are meeting the demand for better evidence of learning through student-focused, outcomes- and assessment-based higher education programs. Competency-based programs are built on specific competencies and enabling technologies that create a personalized, flexible program of study, which emphasizes relevant skills for future employment and career success. Programs that are competency-based assess what students have learned and are able to do, rather than what they may know and the amount of time spent in a course.
This is no easy task. To resolve the skills gap, employers must be engaged upfront to help education systems be nimble and shift program curricula and assessments to meet the changing labor market and societal needs. Where can institutional leaders find relevant information about skills and competency frameworks?
- The National Network for Business and Industry Associations created Common Employability Skills, a framework that describes broad and specific competencies required for increasingly sophisticated levels of work across industries representing 75 percent of job growth by 2020.
- Another option is the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), which offers a complementary framework for requirements for associate, bachelor, and master degrees, which includes the integration of academic and interpersonal skills, as well as specialized knowledge of specific disciplines.
Scaling Competency-Based Programs
Great strides have been made by institutions introducing competency-based programs, such as those in the Breakthrough Models Incubator program, working to more substantively integrate college learning and market demand. Yet, advancements in the tools and technical infrastructure are needed to make the delivery and packaging of higher education meaningful to students and employers. For example, institutions currently developing competency-based programs are encountering implementation barriers as they design new and innovative curriculum mapping tools, student-centered e-portfolios, and transcripts that make acquired competencies transparent. An easy-to-adopt, integrated infrastructure designed for institutions that serve the new student majority—older, part-time, lower income, and distance learners—is needed to help scale competency-based programs.
Institutional leaders have a responsibility to all students to create conditions that allow them to showcase their knowledge and applied skills in ways that are meaningful to potential employers. To meet this responsibility, leaders will need a sustained effort and strong direction to incorporate technology advancements into their budget planning, to collaborate with other institutions to address technology costs, and to engage employers to align career-ready skills and competencies with programs of study.
The increasing interest in more sophisticated competency frameworks represents a shift in expectations among higher education stakeholders, who are placing greater emphasis on the integration of workforce-relevant skills with academic knowledge.
Stacey Clawson, Ph.D., serves as Senior Program Officer of Postsecondary Success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In this role, she collaborates across education, business, and government sectors to develop and foster next generation models for curriculum and assessment, learner mobility, and educational technology.