Liberal Education

Experience Matters: Why Competency-Based Education Will Not Replace Seat Time

There is a growing trend in higher education to offer college credit for “prior learning” and demonstrated competence. In one of the highest profile speeches of his tenure as secretary of education, Arne Duncan (2011) praised giving college credit for what students know instead of “seat time.” President Barack Obama has also spoken in favor of competency-based programs in his proposals to reform higher education (White House Office of the Press Secretary 2013). The Department of Education is actively encouraging colleges to offer competency-based programs (Field 2013). Given the rising cost of tuition—caused in large part because of public defunding—President Obama and Secretary Duncan applaud any approach that will bring down the amount students and their parents have to pay or, more important, borrow, while also increasing the number of Americans with college degrees.

Competency-based education works by identifying the specifics things that someone needs to be able to learn and to do in order to earn a degree (or pass a course), and then allows students to move forward as soon as they have demonstrated that they have mastered the expectations. Prior leaning seeks to reward students—especially older students—for work and other forms of experience that can be parlayed into academic credit.

Perhaps such an approach makes sense for those vocational fields in which knowing the material is the only important outcome, where the skills are easily identified, and where the primary goal is certification. But in other fields—the liberal arts and sciences, but also many of the professions—this approach simply does not work. Instead, for most students, the experience of being in a physical classroom on a campus with other students and faculty remains vital to what it means to get a college education.

Liberal education

The goal of a liberal education is to transform a person by offering him or her serious and diverse intellectual experiences. As Edward Ayers (2010), president of the University of Richmond, put it, liberal education should be seen as experiential learning for the mind. It seeks not just to demonstrate a series of outputs, but instead it offers a significant number of inputs. The quality of intellectual experiences—not just the mastery of competencies—is the heart of a serious college education. “College education,” philosopher Gary Gutting (2013) writes, “is a proliferation of such possibilities: the beauty of mathematical discovery, the thrill of scientific understanding, the fascination of historical narrative, the mystery of theological speculation. We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates.” In other words, traditional colleges offer students an education, not just certification.

A good liberal education is not just about learning to write well or to think critically, or any other specific outcome or competency. Instead, it is also about putting students into contexts in which they are exposed to new ideas, asked to chew on them, and to talk or write about them. One hopes that students will be disturbed and fascinated—and even thrilled—by what they learn.

These kinds of experiences happen when students spend time interacting with professors and each other on campuses—what Duncan calls “seat time.” Even if students have mastered the basic competencies, they should still take more classes, because liberal educators seek to ensure that students will have the intellectual experiences that make college education worthwhile.

It is hard to quantify the value and lasting influence of an experience. We know that the world is always interpreted, and these interpretations are shaped by the categories of thought that we use to make sense and to make meaning. A good education should offer experiences that reshape those categories so that our interpretations—in fact, the world itself—appears different to us before and after the educational process. Even better, a good education should provide us with the skills, categories, knowledge, and habits that make us not just interpreters but skilled, conscientious, thoughtful, and profound interpreters of our world.

In truth, there is an anti-intellectual tendency in the effort to award significant academic credit for non-academic experiences. The competency-based approach is designed to eliminate the mediating role of teachers. Teachers, after all, can be quirky and different from one another, since each teacher is an expert but has a human—and, therefore, particular—relationship with his or her subject. But that is also why teachers matter. By caring about the material and about students, teachers create a connection between the two. They do not simply provide content but rather offer contexts for understanding. By watching others care deeply, students start to see why what seems unrelated to them—in fact, what seems academic—can actually shape their relationship with the world. This kind of mediation is teaching at its best.


The competency-based approach not only reduces the role of teachers, it also often considers knowledge of a subject as secondary to mastering the skills—as some have put it, who cares what you know, it’s what you can do that matters (Friedman 2013). Certainly, recent work on the brain has made clear that to know and to do cannot be disaggregated—knowledge becomes so when it is learned through the brain’s active engagement (Willingham 2009; Zull 2002). Skills, however, are often the means, not the end. For example, we may read books and write papers to become better critical thinkers and writers, or we may learn to think critically and write papers in order to understand books better. In the academy, at least, the latter should be a priority.

Offering substantial credit for “prior learning,” for experiences beyond the academy, is by its very definition to conflate categories. Education—as Lawrence Cremin (1970–80) pointed out long ago in his multivolume history of the subject—is not limited to schooling. The education of a human being happens through culture, through families, through churches; only a part of education happens through formal schooling. Yet, these realms of life are different in their goals, in their criteria, and in their material. To recognize that people learn as much from life as they do from school is not an insult to formal schooling; it is a reality of living. Yet to give credit for experiences that are not properly academic is to undermine the higher academic—that is, intellectual—purposes of formal higher education in the arts and sciences.

This is not to say that there is no role for identifying competencies in the liberal arts. In fact, the American Historical Association (2012) is currently undertaking a “tuning” project to aid history departments in identifying what history majors should be able to do and to demonstrate these skills to outside constituents, including employers. Such an approach can improve teaching and help those outside the discipline understand the kinds of skills and intellectual habits that history majors develop, but these competencies cannot adequately represent the value of a liberal education, or even of a single course.

Even if one could prove that a history major has met a set of competencies—like learning to think historically, write well, and analyze data—that is not enough to earn a history degree, since one of the most important parts of being a history major is learning about different times and places in new ways. History programs ask students to take classes on different eras and places with different professors because it is worth doing even if students are “competent” historians. Demonstrating competence, therefore, is only one of the goals of the history major.

The same applies to other fields. In English, for example, is it enough to learn to read and analyze texts well? Or do we want students to spend time in classes where they engage in serious conversations about texts and where they have experiences that can inspire them to see the world differently? We hope students will be asked to take different courses and read different kinds of literature with different kinds of professors because these experiences are as important as the competencies students develop on the way.

This is as true of general education. The goal of general education is not just to master competencies, but also to expose students to different domains of knowledge and ways of thought in order to develop their potential as human beings and provide a foundation for citizenship. Much of this will be—as it should be—idiosyncratic and incapable of standardization, since we are dealing with people teaching other people about important topics.

The purpose of liberal education—unlike vocational education— is not to train but to change people, and this takes seat time. While colleges may hold themselves accountable for student outcomes, these outcomes can never and will never substitute for the experiences that happen on college campuses, both within the classroom and beyond it. The cumulative effect of these experiences transcends demonstrating competence in a subject or field. It is about students engaging, over several years, in an intellectual journey in which they develop new ways of understanding the world and are given the chance to explore.


It is a shame that we live in a moment in which the pursuit of knowledge for noncommercial purposes is deemed to be of little value. It reduces the purpose of knowledge to generating profit—whether for individual students or for society. This is at odds with the very ideal of liberal education, which has always been oriented around teaching people how to resist the pursuit of immediate self-interest in order to serve larger human and civic purposes. A liberal education offers people the tools they need to make sense of a complicated world because doing so is of immeasurable value to individuals and society. Ideally, a liberal education would instill in students the disposition to ask questions that they did not know were worth asking.

Fostering students’ curiosity about the world requires that they be immersed for a part of their lives in an environment that treats intellectual inquiry—not demonstrating competence—as the highest goal. Competency-based education can improve the quality of college education by helping colleges and disciplines identify some of the specific skills and knowledge that they want their graduates to exhibit, but it will always be just a part of the overall picture. A good collegiate education also offers intellectual experiences not available elsewhere that can change a life and last a lifetime. This is why competency-based education and awarding credit for prior learning will not be a disruptive game changer for most college campuses, despite efforts to tout it as such.

Letter to the editor in response


American Historical Association. 2012. History Discipline Core: American Historical Association Tuning Project. Washington, DC: American Historical Association.

Ayers, E. L. 2010. “The Experience of Liberal Education.” Liberal Education 96 (3): 6–11.

Cremin, L. 1970–80. American Education. 3 vols. New York: Harper.

Duncan, A. 2011. “Beyond the Iron Triangle: Containing the Cost of College and Student Debt.” Remarks of US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the annual Federal Student Aid conference, Las Vegas, November 29. college-and-student-debt.

Field, K. 2013. “Student Aid Can Be Awarded for ‘Competencies,’ Not Just Credit Hours, U.S. Says.” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 19. -for/137991.

Friedman, T. 2013. “How to Get a Job.” New York Times, May 28.

Gutting, G. 2013. “Why Do I Teach,” New York Times Opinionator (blog), May 22.

White House Office of the Press Secretary. 2013. “FACT SHEET on the President’s Plan to Make College More Affordable: A Better Bargain for the Middle Class.” White House, August 22.

Willingham, D. T. 2009. Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Zull, J. E. 2002. The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Johann N. Neem is associate professor of history at Western Washington University.

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