We Ain’t Got No Badges

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) recently received regional accreditation for an online, competency-based associate’s degree priced at $5,000, which the university plans to launch in January. Competency-based bachelor’s degree programs are also under development.

SNHU’s business model emphasizes convenience for students, who can complete SNHU’s 180 degree programs through courses taken entirely online, on campus, or as a mix. You can watch one of its tv commercials here. (Please note that I do not have any financial relationship with SNHU.)

Competency-based degree programs have the potential of making higher education even more convenient for people with work and family commitments, because they separate the credentialing of skill and knowledge acquisition from time spent sitting in a classroom — the traditional credit hour — as an approximation of academic progress. Given the high cost of post-secondary education in the USA, is probably a good thing.

There are plenty of people who argue that standardized tests that purportedly measure competency do not assess how well students have learned to create, communicate, and analyze new ideas. But does the credit hour actually do this? Rampant grade inflation and the complaints from employers about empty-headed job-seekers suggest otherwise, as does the widespread acceptance of a need for licensing exams for plumbers, electricians, physicians, lawyers, nurses, and public school teachers.

So the interesting question for me is one that relates to the previous posts of my colleagues: is education best delivered as a contact sport, and if so, should the model be cricket or paintball? If one can gain competency at a lower cost by not sitting in a certain number of classrooms for a certain number of hours, and one can get that competency certified in a manner that is widely recognized outside of the university, then some people will choose to play golf.