Reducing the cost of higher education is one of the more significant possibilities offered by online competency-based education (CBE). College budgets are not going to get any easier to balance in the near future, and the pressure to restrain decades of increases in tuition is now coming from the highest offices in the US.
However, that there’s not yet a great deal of data on costs in competency based learning. This isn’t unusual: higher education hasn’t spent a great deal of energy trying to understand the cost implications of different instructional models in the past. Partly because it is difficult for institutions to separate the costs of shared services, and partly because such an effort implies that instructional models can and should be designed and evalauted in terms of costs – a highly unpopular view within many instituions. Consequently, institutions too often rely on simplistic calculations to determine “profitability”. One institution with which I worked, for example, assumed that a course was profitable if the tuition it generated in any given semester (number of students X tuition rate) was greater than the Instructor pay rate.
Competency-based learning is an ideal place to start thinking more about the relationship between costs and instructional strategies. The focus on learning outcomes, rather than the traditional focus on inputs – such as faculty credentials, research productivity, tuition rates, and other surrogates of quality – provides the basis for an analysis of instructional value that can be more thoughtfully tied to dollars spent. It makes it easier, though certainly not easy, to compare the value of different instructional strategies in financial terms.
A first step is identifying the unique variables shaping costs in competency based learning.
Course Design and Development
For most colleges and universities creating CBE courses and programs requires a departure from standard practices. It is typically a more rigorous, disciplined and labor-intensive process than simply “putting classrom courses online”. The factors we need to consider with respect to course design and development include:
Course Design and Development Resources. Which technologies and talent are required to develop CBE courses? Who will be involved in defining and aligning the objectives, assessments and learning activities? Which software will provide the institution with the data it needs to confirm students are achieving mastery of the curriculum?
CBE is perfectly well-suited to leveraging adaptive software and learning analytics; it allow us to estimate the student’s grasp of the curriculum, adjust the experience to meet their particular needs, and allow them to proceed as fast or slow as is suitable.
Adjusting Roles and Responsibilities. The design of CBE courses may involve an adjustment to the roles and responsibilities of faculty and support staff. This will have significant cost implications, given that instructional labor accounts for roughly 75% of an institution’s costs. At Western Governors’ University, for example, the traditional one-instructor per course model is replaced with a more nuanced model, suitable for their CBE-based programs: Course Mentors are responsible for mastery of the content, and Student Mentors provide one-on-one guidance and support to students.
Tuition and Loans
At this point in time CBE programs tend to be offered by institutions that have lower than average tuition rates. While significant, this alone doesn’t tell us a great deal about the effect of the CBE instructional model on student or institution costs.
Speed to Completion. More than other types of instructional models, cost is influenced by speed to completion. The faster the student proceeds through the program, the lower their total costs. This is amplified by the use of subscription or “all-you-can-eat” tuition models in which students are charged for a period of time, during which they can maximize (or minimize) the volume of competencies/courses completed. This obviously can reduce costs for students proceeding quickly and may, as Robert Kelchen notes in his excellent review, serve as a motivation for learners.
Availability of Loans. Finally, while competency based learning has been around for decades in one form or another, regulators are only now getting serious about finding ways to ensure that students can have access to the full array of financial support systems. For better or worse, loans are now fundamental to American higher education; they’re the lifeblood for a significant percentage of the students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, and the institutions they attend. Identifying the potential for cost savings in competency based learning requires a better understanding of the availability of loans and other factors.