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2013 June 2 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Skilling Up

Photo courtesy Southern New Hampshire University
Under the competency-based education model, students can work on their own pace, going as quickly or as slowly as they want. 

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Skilling Up
DOE Endorsement of SNHU Competency-Based Education Program Sets Stage for Expansion
By Paul Bradley

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Competency-Based Education Pioneers

When the College for America officially rolls out its associate degree program in general studies in September, it will look nothing like traditional academia.

There will be no courses. There will be no faculty, no grades, no transcripts, and most importantly, no credit hours.

Rather, the first 500 students enrolled in CfA, being developed by Southern New Hampshire University, will be studying and learning in remote locations, at home or at work. They’ll be guided by individual learning plans embodying key competencies they must master throughout the course of their program.

CfA is joining a handful of colleges pursuing competency-based education, an approach that allows learners — particularly adult learners — to earn college degrees based on defined, objectively measured outcomes instead of spending specific amounts of seat time in classrooms.

Competency-based education has been around for decades. Institutions such as Excelsior College, and more recently, Western Governor’s University, have been leaders in the field, granting academic credit through assessments of informal or prior learning experiences. But mainstream colleges have been slow to accept such credit, in part because it upends their business of providing classroom education for a fee.

Increasingly, however, competency-based education is gaining traction. It is being seen as a way both to attract the growing segment of non-traditional, older college students, as well as furthering the Obama administration goal of dramatically increasing the number of Americans with college degrees.

The CfA model is commanding new attention because it bears the imprimatur of the U.S. Department of Education. Last month, DOE announced that the CfA is now eligible for Title IV funding, allowing its students access to Pell grants, student loans and other slices of the $1.5 billion federal student aid pie.

CfA’s competency-based model is the first in the country to be approved under direct assessment provisions of the Higher Education Reconciliation Act that allow Title IV payments for learning outcomes rather than seat time. CfA thus becomes the first Title IV degree program to completely decouple from the credit hour, doing away with traditional courses and instead measuring progress on 120 competencies.

“This is a major step forward especially for working students and their employers,” said SHNU President Paul J. LeBlanc. “So many of them want low-cost, highly measurable degrees that actually align with the needs of employers and workforce opportunities The new federal aid loan and grant eligibility not only means more access for working students, it signals recognition of a whole new way of delivering learning that we think can significantly boost national competitiveness.”

The DOE is hoping that their Title IV approval of SNHU will prod other institutions into testing competency-based education.

“We encourage institutions with competency-based program models to apply for Title IV program eligibility,” David A. Bergeron, acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education, wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter last month.

“Competency-based approaches to education have the potential for assuring the quality and extent of learning, shortening the time to degree/certificate completion, developing stackable credentials that ease student transitions between school and work, and reducing the overall cost of education for both career-technical and degree programs. The department plans to collaborate with both accrediting agencies and the higher education community to encourage the use of this innovative approach when appropriate.”

In a written statement, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, “this is a key step forward in expanding access to affordable higher education. We know many students and adult learners across the country need the flexibility to fit their education into their lives or work through a class on their own pace, and these competency-based programs offer those features.”

A key reason unconventional credit is attracting such notice is that it is significantly cheaper than the traditional kind. CfA will charge students $2,500 a year, meaning a student can earn a two-year associate degree for $5,000, and the price tag could be lower. Under the competency-based model, students must pass tests on a specific set of skills and knowledge points, rather then completing a specific number of credit hours, meaning that students can work at their own pace. College officials predict that up to 20 percent of those enrolled could complete the degree in as little as six months.

“We are trying to address three big challenges: cost, access and quality,” LeBlanc said. “If we can deliver quality at this cost point, then that’s a real breakthrough. It fundamentally changes the higher education business model.”

CfA is not intended to replace traditional online offerings or the traditional college experience. Rather, it is striving to expand access to higher education and directly tie outcomes to pressing workforce needs.

CfA builds on the SNHU’s successful, fast-growing online education program, which now enrolls more than 20,000 students, the largest of its kind in New England. But just as the online operation was separated from the main campus, CfA will have its own staff and its own space.

You won’t be hearing about CfA on television or radio ads, however. College representatives won’t be showing up at college fairs recruiting students. CfA is finding its its students in the workplace. Working with 20 corporate partners — including Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, ConAgra Foods, the City of Memphis and the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts — CfA is purposely seeking out students who have little college or no college at all, but want to earn a degree to advance in their workplace. The CfA is intentionally enlisting students many traditional colleges would shun or place into long remedial education sequences.

“It really is aimed at working adults and those have never gone to college,” said CfA Executive Director Kris Clerkin. “They are not confident about their abilities. They are familiar with academic failure. That’s why they like the competency-based approach. They can demonstrate what they know.”

Under the CfA model, each student will get multiple sources of support, including an SNHU coach and a peer accountability partner. They will work with instructional material created by SHNU faculty from open educational resources.

Rather than accumulating credit hours and grades, the program requires students to demonstrate evidence of mastery through the set of 120 competencies, where they accomplish specific tasks, which are scored by trained evaluators using analytic rubrics. If their work meets college standards, the student moves on to the next level. Now in the pilot phase, CfA will officially launch in the fall.

Students can revise and resubmit until they demonstrate mastery; there is no failing grade. The evaluators will provide feedback within 48 hours.

The college and DOE are both wary of critics who say the program is little more than glorified vocational education, or worse, pay for credits. LeBlanc said its curriculum blends general skills, such as quantitative reasoning, with soft skills, such as teamwork, as well as skills tied to specific workplace needs. The program is based on the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile, which includes specialized knowledge, intellectual skills and civic learning.

DOE officials are being cautious. Even as it supports competency-based education, it’s looking for assurances that the CfA rollout will have a lasting impact.

“We want to make sure that these new competency-based programs are rigorous, with no compromises in academic quality,” said Martha Kanter, undersecretary of education, in a statement. “When students, faculty members, institutions of higher education, accreditors, employers and government better understand what graduates know and can do, everyone stands to benefit.”

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