With record-breaking inflation, rising costs of tuition, declining undergraduate enrollment, and critics comparing a college degree to “a piece of paper,” it’s become increasingly important for higher learning institutions to prove the value of a college education. As employers today seek to hire college graduates with specific content expertise, or “hard skills,” as well as “soft skills” — pertaining to leadership, communication, and organizational skills, for example — prospective students and their parents look for outcome-based educational programs that best prepare today’s college graduates for professional work over a liberal arts education. As a result, higher education institutions are developing university competency frameworks.
What is a University Competency Framework?
A competency framework, or model, is “an organized collection of knowledge, skills, and behaviors required for great performance.” Organizations and educational institutions typically use competency frameworks to determine whether individuals are meeting established learning outcomes. These university assessment career competencies provide an established set of learning outcomes for both academic courses and co-curricular activities to provide evidence of a well-rounded, pre-professional education that students, parents, employers and graduate program admissions officials seek.
With established competency frameworks, colleges and universities can better prepare college graduates for the workplace or further education, while providing solid evidence of the value of a college education and ensuring that graduates have developed the in-demand essential knowledge and skills. Additionally, university competency frameworks can provide valuable insights to higher education leaders regarding the effectiveness of programs, courses and co-curricular programs and activities.
Tips to Develop a University Competency Framework
It’s clear that university competency frameworks are the way for colleges and universities to move forward and better prepare undergraduates for the job market. What best practices guide the development of university competency frameworks? Since the idea of developing these such frameworks can be overwhelming, we have provided some helpful tips to simplify the process.
Research on competency framework best practices point to several factors critical for developing a successful university competency framework. According to AACSB International (AACSB), a global nonprofit connecting educators, students and employers to “create the next generation of great leaders,” assessment career competencies are most effective when they demonstrate these four features:
Transferability: Keep Competencies Transferable
Competencies are transferable when they can be “applied across different situations, environments, and fields while maintaining both their relevance and impact,” as noted by the AACSB.
The first step is to determine which competencies are most critical to student success. This can be done by conducting research and communicating with employer partners across a variety of fields regarding the skills they most seek in qualified candidates.
The University of Pittsburgh College of Business Administration, commonly referred to as Pitt Business, worked with Suitable to develop a university competency framework. Its “Outside the Classroom Curriculum” ensures students receive a well-rounded education that aligns with the core competencies most employers desire. Pitt Business started with 20 core competencies, which they narrowed down to 10. These assessment career competencies, which feature soft skills as well, include career and professional development, personal financial literacy and wellness, global and cultural engagement, leadership development and more.
“We worked it out with our corporate side to make sure we had what they wanted to see at the forefront of this program,” says R.J. Rakow. This alignment of learning goals with real-world competencies shows students why these skills are valuable to them. “It ensures that students are thinking the same way as employers do. It gives them vocabulary that puts them on that same playing field as employers,” he adds.
Stackability: Be Intentional Through Clear Guided Pathways
Competencies are stackable when they “outline clear pathways toward a valued and validated credential,” per the AACSB. This can refer to anything from a degree or certificate to a microcredential.
Without a clear path in front of them, college students can become overwhelmed and fail to take advantage of the wealth of curricular and co-curricular resources available to them. By providing an intentional and consistent path for them to follow, from freshman year through graduation, students have a clear idea of what they need to do to reach their goals.
Achieving a competency framework that includes clear guided pathways can be done by incorporating gamification practices that involve various proficiency levels, as Pitt Business has done. Each level is designed so students can visualize their pathway as they work toward their goals.
In this way, students can better recognize low and high-impact activities. They start at Level 1 as freshmen and gain points throughout their program by taking part in different activities. For example, level 1, the exposure level, is the most basic. It applies to freshman and transfer students to help them become acclimated to the demands of college life. Activities at this level might include meeting with advisors, familiarizing themselves with their school’s resources, and attending events, whereas levels 4 and 5, which emphasize expertise and mastery, include later experiential learning goals such as service learning, study abroad experiences and internships.
Before instituting a comprehensive competency framework with the help of Suitable’s web and mobile applications, the University of Wyoming struggled in its student engagement efforts. By partnering with Suitable, they instituted its own competency framework through their “UW SOAR'' program.
“We stress service, engagement and leadership. But this aspect of our curriculum was not institutionalized before SOAR. It was more of an aspirational value that we help students become leaders and difference makers, but we didn’t link it to a curricular requirement,” says Dr. Peter Parolin, Dean of the University of Wyoming Honors College. “That’s where SOAR comes in.”
Measurability: Ensure Observable or Quantifiable Evidence
According to the AACSB, competencies are measurable when they “contain some observable or quantifiable evidence of knowledge acquisition and/or application across various levels of proficiency.”
As mentioned, incorporating gamification practices can push students to become more active participants on their academic and co-curricular undergraduate journeys. When such programs involve various levels of proficiency, students can measure their individual progress as they progress through the program. Student motivation is enhanced and incentivized through their acquisition of digital badges as they meet program milestones.
“Suitable has provided us with an excellent micro-credentialing platform to engage students in wanting to progress through learning outcomes, from exposure all the way up to mastery of a concept,” says University of Wyoming Provost Dr. Anne Alexander of the university’s SOAR program.
SOAR also incorporates Suitable’s Co-Curricular Transcript, a comprehensive record of students’ co-curricular activities, projects and experiences. Like an online portfolio, the Co-Curricular Transcript can be shared to students’ social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, and shared with potential employers.
Aligning these competencies to the goals of your school can even assist with accreditation efforts, as these types of programs show how such competencies align with core learning objectives through a variety of curricular and co-curricular programming.
Flexibility: Be Adaptive to Prepare for Future Challenges
When competencies are flexible, this, according to the AACSB, means they should be adaptive across situations by taking into account individual student needs and the changing context of learning environments as we encounter uncertain complex challenges of the future.
The University of Wyoming’s “SOAR” program, for example, was purposefully developed to include “experiences that will shape, engage and prepare students to meet unpredictable and complex challenges for the future.”
A program such as Pitt Business’ “Outside the Classroom Curriculum” personalizes each student’s experiences. If a student appears to be missing any core competencies through their given curricular and co-curricular engagements, the system points out where they are lacking. This alert helps to keep students from falling behind their peers and helps them become well-rounded. Adds R.J. Rakow, “It puts students on a track for their entire career.”
Pitt Business’ “Outside the Classroom Curriculum” and the University of Wyoming’s “SOAR” are two examples of university competency frameworks in action. These competency programs incorporate Suitable’s digital applications and gamification techniques to provide competency-based, customized learning activities that motivate students to work toward these goals and develop the skills that employers seek now and in the future.