This article was originally published in the 2013 edition of the Continuing Higher Education Review.

Lipscomb University will implement a first-of-its-kind competency-based educational program called CORE (Customized, Outcome-based, Relevant Evaluation) beginning with the Bachelor of Professional Studies (BPS) in Organizational Leadership in fall 2013. Lipscomb University recognizes that certain students bring to the institution a pre-existing set of college-level competencies, knowledge, skills, and abilities acquired through out-of-class learning experiences. Instead of creating an untested competency model, Lipscomb will employ an existing, research-based model from the business sector called Polaris® created by Dr. Bruce Griffiths, the founder of Organization Systems International. This model is widely used by employers, many of whom may hire Lipscomb students upon graduation. In addition to using Polaris®, another distinguishing factor of CORE is that its assessments are not online exams; instead, students will participate in group and individual activities on site with trained assessors for a personalized behavioral assessment. Furthermore, students engage in competency development with faculty coaches instead of self-study. These coaches will be compensated on a pay-for-performance system so faculty are incentivized to develop the students in the course. We believe using the Polaris® model, combined with face-to-face behavioral assessments and personal coaching, will increase retention, degree completion, and confidence.


Program History

Lipscomb University’s Adult Degree Program (ADP) was created in 1990 to meet an institutionally perceived need for an evening degree program for working adults in Nashville who lacked undergraduate degrees. Within two years, the program enrolled 51 students, and by 1997 enrollment had grown to 170. But because of a decreased advertising budget and increased competition from neighboring institutions, Adult Studies enrollment had dropped to 86 students by 2005.

At that point, new leadership came on board at the university and program levels, along with a general awareness in higher education that the pool of high school graduates was declining and that nontraditional students were an important segment. Nationally, workforce needs were rising and the percentage of the population with postsecondary credentials was not keeping up. Meanwhile, the 2008 recession triggered an increase in enrollment as working adults sought bachelor’s degrees to remain competitive, train for new jobs during unemployment, and avoid layoffs. Another national factor was the Post-9/11 GI Bill; Lipscomb, a “Yellow Ribbon” university, welcomed Middle Tennessee veterans, most of whom entered its doors via the Adult Degree Program.

The change in university administration and program leadership breathed new life into the Adult Degree Program. On campus, student services offices began to hold later hours for adult students, and ADP staff began to provide more targeted programming for its students in the form of information sessions, orientations, and graduation receptions. In addition, an admissions counselor was hired in 2009 to assist in the program’s recruiting efforts. By fall 2010, the Adult Degree Program had rebounded, tying its record for highest fall enrollment set in 1995. Since then, the enrollment has continued at high enrollment levels with an increased first-year adult student retention rate of 20 percent (between 2006 and 2010) to equal that of first-year traditional freshmen at Lipscomb.

In summer 2011, the university president’s commitment to nontraditional students and flexible programming was further realized through the formation of the College of Professional Studies, which would house innovative, market-driven and customizable programs primarily for adult students. Today, the college’s departments include the Adult Degree Program; the Institute for Law, Justice, and Society; the School of TransformAging; Integrated Studies; and most recently, Organizational Leadership.

Through the leadership and vision of the dean of the College of Professional Studies, the Adult Degree Program has added several new program features since 2011. These include portfolio-based prior learning assessment; a customizable integrated studies bachelor’s degree; the Turn Back Tuition discount, which allows students to return to school at the tuition price of their last semester in residence; and the Bachelor of Professional Studies in Organizational Leadership through CORE.



The dean of the College of Professional Studies first became aware of integrating competency assessment into academic programs through her previous work in the College of Business. In 2006, while attending an AACSB business conference, she met the founder of Organizational Systems International and learned about the Polaris® competency model. She was able to receive funding to purchase a license to the model but very few pieces of competency assessment were integrated into the graduate business programs. It was not until she assumed leadership of the newly formed College of Professional Studies that she could focus on implementing a competency-based degree, at the undergraduate level.

This was Lipscomb’s way of addressing national and state concerns for making higher education more affordable and accessible to more Americans. President Barack Obama’s sounded a call for the United States to become most educated country in the world by 2020. This goal has been echoed by the Lumina Foundation, which aims to increase the percentage of Americans with postsecondary credentials to 60 percent by 2025. More recently, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam announced his goal for 55 percent of Tennesseans to possess a postsecondary credential by 2025.

With these national and local conversations percolating, the dean and her director for new program research and design began envisioning what such a program would look like. The challenge was that no undergraduate program had been designed on the basis of the Polaris® model. Through research and benchmarking the few competency programs that do exist in higher education, they began to articulate the specifics of a competency-based Bachelor of Professional Studies in Organizational Leadership. In fall 2012, the creator of Polaris® trained the first group of 12 Lipscomb faculty and staff and certified them as behavioral assessors capable of serving in the assessment center Lipscomb was creating.


Program Framework

As Lipscomb moves forward with the pioneering BPS in Professional Studies, it is important to explain the role of the CORE Assessment and Development Center, which will operate according to The Guidelines and Ethical Considerations for Assessment Center Operations (1989). Students begin by registering for the center’s CORE 1000 Initial Assessment course, where they may be assessed for up to 14 competencies. In conjunction with Organization Systems International, Lipscomb drew up a set of competencies as being the skills and abilities Lipscomb students should possess when they graduate.

Trained assessors include faculty, staff, and community members who undergo the Organization Systems International Polaris® competency assessor training. Three assessors for every six students per assessment session, which lasts eight hours, will staff the Assessment Center. Students engage in a variety of activities that allow them to show their competency in 14 assessed areas. These activities include cooperative group discussion, in-basket exercise, in-basket interview, competitive presentation, competitive group discussion and impromptu speech. Each activity addresses multiple competencies; similarly, each competency is demonstrated through at least two activities. Assessors will score students on levels zero to five, with three being the sufficient score, one and two below average and four and five above average.

Students return to the Assessment Center at a later time, such as the following afternoon, for debriefing and assessment results. Each assessor meets with two students to discuss their scores, earned stackable badges, potential for credit, as well as areas of strength and gaps for improvement. Lipscomb has equated each of the Polaris competency levels to a digital badge system. Students scoring between 3.0 and3.9 (as agreed-upon by the team of assessors) will receive a level two badge and be eligible for three 3000-level (junior) credits in that competency. A 4.0 to 4.4 score merits a level-three badge and 4000-level to 5000-level credit. Finally, students scoring 4.5 or above will receive a level four badge that equates to 6000-level graduate credit. This is extremely difficult to reach, and most ADP students are unlikely to score in the 4 range unless they have had executive-level work experience.

The College of Professional Studies has designed competency development courses in the Elementary, Applied, Advanced, and Strategic levels, respectively, for each competency. Students scoring below the badge level of two, which is required for the BPS in Organizational Leadership, are advised to register for the 3000-level course in that competency area. Students then engage with a faculty coach, or mentor, in an online, activity-based course that may include readings, videos, online simulations and other assignments depending on the competency.

Students then return to the CORE Assessment Center for a post-assessment. The trained competency assessors are separate from the faculty coaches so as to isolate assessment from development. If students do not place at the required level of competency at the post-assessment, they will continue working with their faculty coach for the duration of the semester or re-enroll for another section the following semester. Students can work at their own pace, whether it takes them four weeks, eight weeks or the entire semester to complete their competency course, and only schedule a post-assessment with the confirmation of their faculty coach.

For the Bachelor of Professional Studies, eight competencies are required:


Required Courses Credit Hours (45)
“Big 6” leadership competencies:

·      Relationship building

·      Problem solving & decision making

·      Organizing & planning

·      Influence

·      Communicativeness

·      Drive/Energy

6 courses x 3 credits each = 18 credit hours
Subject matter concentration:

·      Aging

·      Business

·      Psychology

·      Restorative criminal justice

6 courses x 3 credits each = 18 credit hours
Two concentration-specific competencies 2 courses x 3 credits each = 6 credit hours
Integrated Capstone Assessment Project 1 course x 3 credits = 3 credits


Students pursue a subject matter concentration in an area in which they are already working or wish to build a career. In addition to the four offered this fall (aging, business, psychology, and restorative criminal justice), Lipscomb plans to add concentrations based on market demand and student interest. The concentration serves as a discipline-specific complement to the leadership competencies, with the capstone encouraging students to integrate both components of their degrees through a practical research project.


Policies and Procedures

When starting a competency-based program, it is important to review university policies and procedures and to draft and approve revisions if existing policies and procedures do not adequately address a competency-based program. These must be clearly communicated to students, faculty, and staff. A significant number of policy and procedure changes will be needed in a typical academic environment. The following illustrates a few of these.

Policy/Procedure Issues
Pricing structure
  • Tuition price and structure: Flat rate? By credit hour? By competency? By module?
  • Assessment: Charge? Price?
  • Development: Charge? Price?
Assessment methods
  • Testing: Online? In-person? Virtual?
  • Behavioral assessment: Additional fee? In-person only?
  • 360 Reviews: Online? Instrument?
Role of faculty
  • Assessors or coaches
  • Count in load
  • Additional compensation: Pay for performance system? Per person rate?
  • Academically qualified:  Criteria for qualification?
Letter grade system
  • Traditional letter grade A-F
  • Credit by assessment
  • Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory
Outcome-based, not time-based
  • Self-paced
  • Fixed learning outcomes
  • Implications for traditional processes and systems
Stackable badges
  • Development courses
  • Apply to existing degrees?
  • Significance in workplace
  • Acceptance by employers
  • Transcription
  • Storage of student performance
  • Expiration



Challenges and Opportunities

There are a number of challenges presented by competency-based educational programs. First, academia tends to be suspicious of these types of programs and in particular, awarding college credit for learning that may have occurred outside a traditional classroom environment. By starting with the implementation of prior learning assessment (PLA) by portfolio, the faculty had already acknowledged their ability to measure a student work product against a course’s learning objectives. Therefore, when the competency-based program was introduced, the PLA policy made it easier to receive approval for measuring learning against predefined behavioral indicators.

Another challenge is ensuring the rigor and academic quality of competency-based programs. It is important for the competency-based offerings to enhance the university brand and not detract from it. By choosing Polaris®—a reputable, widely used competency model—we had confidence in the assessment tools and behavioral measures because they had already been tried and tested for reliability and validity among a wide range of industries.

There is still significant debate on whether the competency-based program will compete with traditional academic programs. For example, there are distinct differences between the Bachelor of Professional Studies in Organizational Leadership and the Bachelor of Business Administration in Management. As a result, these degrees appeal to two different student populations. Although it is possible that students will transfer out of existing academic programs into the competency-based program, recruiters have been trained to help prospective students determine which program is the right one based on the individual’s particular needs and background.

Competency-based education is attracting significant attention on the part of the US Department of Education, regional accrediting bodies, and public officials. These entities acknowledge that changes to regulations and standards will be needed to expand competency-based education, including through direct-assessment methods. Although the College of Professional Studies program complies with current course-based, credit-based requirements, the original version of the program was direct assessment. Regulatory restrictions in place at the time of the program’s adoption kept the program from moving forward. With recent changes, a direct-assessment program will now be advanced to university administration.

There are multiple opportunities presented by the competency-based program. Because competency-based education is relatively new, the College of Professional Studies is planning to conduct a research project to determine the effectiveness of competency-based learning on traditional undergraduate students. In fall 2013 a small group of first-time freshmen will engage in a study with one group receiving only initial assessment and post-assessment and the other receiving competency development in the Big Six leadership competencies with faculty coaching between assessment visits. The post-assessment will take place during the senior year. One of the hoped-for outcomes of this proposed study is that competency development with traditional students will lead to greater student success and retention. The results of this study could influence the expansion of competency assessment as, for example, a minor option for traditional students.

Significant opportunities also exist for partnerships with employers to develop their workforce. The College of Professional Studies’ Director of Employer Engagement is actively promoting the CORE Assessment and Development Center’s services to employers. These employers can send employees to the center for an independent, third-party assessment. These evaluations can be utilized for multiple purposes, including succession planning, hiring, training, and development. The university offers development courses to employers at a negotiated rate, with the employee having the option to pay a nominal fee to transcript the course for credit.

Since the Polaris® model has been adopted by a number of industries, data is available which allows the College of Professional Studies to quickly customize degrees for students and employers by changing the required competency combination. This level of flexibility provides the college with the opportunity to be more responsive to workforce needs.



As the need for more Americans and Tennesseans to possess postsecondary credentials increases, the College of Professional Studies at Lipscomb University is poised to address it through the Core Assessment and Development Center and Bachelor of Professional Studies in Organizational Leadership. Researching, designing, and implementing the program have been years in the making, but the time is right. While challenges lie ahead, so do incredible opportunities for students, employers, and Lipscomb as an institution, as well as other colleges to enter this new world of credit-by-competency assessment.


(c) 2013 Charla S. Long, Dean, College of Professional Studies and Director of the Center for Law, Justice, & Society, and Teresa Bagamery Clark, Director of New Program Research and Design and Assistant Professor of Integrated Studies, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN

This article was originally published in the 2013 edition of the Continuing Higher Education Review.