By Marty Chester, M.S.Ed., Student Services Manager, College of Professional Studies at Lipscomb University
Higher education is prone to using buzzwords - a word or phrase that sounds impactful but does not necessarily mean the same thing at every college or university. Competency Based Education (CBE) and Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) are the latest higher education buzzwords but be warned, definitions may vary!
To understand CBE and PLA, students need to be able to put them in their proper place, alongside other avenues of personalization in higher education. Many types of PLA have been around a long time: CLEP exams, AP credit, dual enrollment and using a test or portfolio process to earn credit for specific coursework. In these ways, you can earn credit for what you already know.
What you may not realize is that these avenues can be limited to specific coursework and credit limits as determined by the university. In some cases, portfolio assessments can take as much time and money as taking a course.
CBE is another term that is often confused with PLA. However, many CBE programs do not allow PLA, and some so-called PLA programs are not competency-based. The Competency Based Education Network (CBEN) defines CBE as "a flexible way for students to get credit for what they know, build on their knowledge and skills by learning more at their own pace, and earn high quality degrees, certificates, and other credentials that help them in their lives and careers. Students in these programs show what they know and how well they know it through multiple ways of evaluating learning. This is another choice for learning offered at many institutions, through a variety of programs, with full support to help students when needed."
Broad, indeed! So what does the smart student need to ensure they’re enrolling into a program that’s right for them? We offer the following three tips for smarter shopping:
1. Ask Good Questions
While all admissions teams want to recruit you, not every program is right for every student. If the information you’re getting seems vague or confusing, dig deeper! The only “stupid” question is the one you don’t ask, especially if you’re going to invest your time, money, and energy into an educational program. Only you know the sacrifices you’re willing to make in pursuit of your education and you don’t want any surprises along the way.
Ask about policies and procedures, processes, and support. Dig into how CBE and PLA are being used and be sure that terms are not being used interchangeably—they are not the same thing. If it doesn’t seem different from, for example, a test-out option, maybe it’s not the innovative educational option you’re looking for - and it might not give you the jump-start you need to finish your degree.
2. Read the Course Catalog
The course catalog is your contract with the university and it’s in your best interest to read and understand the parts that apply to you. Read everything from admissions and financial information to the details of the program in which you plan to enroll. There might be addenda to a catalog during the year, so ask for those as well. Take ownership of your education and learn all you can about the university and program before you ever sit in a class. The catalog will detail all PLA options and a solid description of any CBE process. If it does not, it’s time to ask more questions.
3. Talk to Other Students
While it may seem unorthodox to request referrals, doesn’t such an important decision demand you ask? There’s no better way to find out what to truly expect from your educational experience than to speak with someone who, like yourself, decided to invest in his or her education. This can be especially compelling when gathering data about a CBE program. Was the experience easy or difficult to navigate? What did the experience entail? How were CBE results delivered and how was credit evaluated to find the best situation for the student? Any CBE program worth its salt won’t shy away from providing honest referrals.
Returning to college is a milestone decision and there are a slew of good options inside quality colleges and universities to help you reach your goal.
Be a smart shopper and do your homework before you enroll and keep the focus on reaching your individual goals by finding an innovative program that meets your needs.
Lipscomb University works with StraighterLine to provide alternative credit options for current and prospective students interested in earning their bachelor’s degree online. Visit lipscomb.edu to learn more about Lipscomb’s nationally recognized competency-based education model.
About the Author:
Marty Chester, M.S.Ed., is the Student Services Manager for the College of Professional Studies at Lipscomb University. She serves as an advisor for students enrolled in accounting, integrated studies, organizational leadership and those who are undecided.
Marty previously worked as the Registrar for The Art Institute of Tennessee, Nashville. Chester holds an M.S. in Education from Harding University. Chester has nearly 20 years of experience in higher education, including student advising, staff management, event management, student retention, and student advocacy.