Competency degrees and the role of higher education

Several years ago, Purdue University introduced a “competency degree program”. I called it “test out of your degree”. Although the University’s website is short on detail, I gather the general idea is a focus on doing instead of study. Which sounds pretty good on its face, but actually isn’t.

“We’ve hired Purdue grads before,” said Dave Bozell, owner of CG Visions, told the Lafayette Journal & Courier, “and they have the theory, but we still have to spend time teaching them how to apply it to what they’re working on.”

Yes, Dave. That’s the point. Universities do not exist to provide vocational training for your employees. That’s your responsibility. That’s why science majors have to take some (but not enough) humanities courses. Higher education is for broad learning. Or at least it used to be.

I wonder sometimes if the Morrill Act — which lead to the creation of Purdue University and many other institutions — is what caused the shift from education to training. Uncharitably, it said “this fancy book learnin’ is fine and all, but we need people to have useful skills.” “Useful”, of course, has a pretty strict definition.

Purdue’s College of Technology Dean Gary Bertoline said “there are plenty of high-skill, high-wage technology jobs available, but students just don’t have the skills necessary to fill them.” You know what skills are most lacking in tech these days? It’s not coding. It’s not database optimization. It’s ethics. I doubt that’s in the competency-based degree.

I’d like to see employers doing more to train their employees in the skills needed to perform the day-to-day work. Theory is important, and that’s a good fit for the university model. If you want a more streamlined approach, embrace vocational schools. Much of the work done these days that requires a college degree doesn’t need to. In fact, it might benefit from a more focused vocational approach that leaves graduates in less debt.

But universities should be catering to the needs of the student and the society, not the employer.

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