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2015 June 9 - 05:07 am

Competency-Based Education Giving Colleges Accelerated, Flexible Options

CBE Programs Promote Productive Business Partnerships

Sally Johnstone-VP-WGU


According to the National Skills Coalition, the most prevalent skills gaps in the U.S. are in jobs that require education beyond high school but not a four-year degree. Among U.S. higher education institutions, community colleges have a strong history in preparing students for regional job markets. However, many college programs struggle with industry engagement.

Community colleges are finding that competency-based education (CBE) programs can provide them with new opportunities to engage with business and help students gain skills for the job market. CBE programs offer credits and degrees based on demonstration of student learning, or competencies, rather than the amount of credit hours or seat time that students accrue. The programs are typically online or hybrid. Students progress at their own pace, are provided with personalized academic support, and must demonstrate competency based on assessments such as tests, demonstrations and essays.

For two years, we have worked with a group of community colleges at the forefront in creating CBE programs in information technology. The colleges are in five states:

Florida: Broward College Indiana: Ivy Tech Community College and its Ft. Wayne and Lafayette Districts Ohio: Sinclair Community College Texas: Austin Community College and Lone Star College, University Park Washington: Bellevue College, Columbia Basin College, Edmonds Community College, and Spokane Falls Community College Presidents of these colleges said their CBE programs helped them create new partnerships. Richard Rhodes, president and CEO of Austin Community College, said his college’s focus on CBE has fostered strong partnerships with businesses, which play an important role in ensuring program effectiveness and connecting employers with highly trained graduates.

Faculty and deans said their main goal in developing the programs was to expand access to higher education. Because the CBE model provides students with accelerated and flexible options, it is appealing to those who have gained knowledge and skills but have no credential related to that expertise. This includes workers, veterans, unemployed adults, and those with college credits but no degree. The programs serve as one approach among many to meet student needs.

Austin Community College has been particularly successful in developing a CBE model that uses business engagement to help recruit students. According to Sam Greer, director of Accelerated Programmer Training (APT), “You don’t go after the students first. You have to go to the industry partners first. Any website associated with CBE needs to be covered with logos, so that students see that. If you build that, they will come.”

In reaching out to industry, Greer and his team began by describing the competencies that graduates would have and asking the companies if the college could post their logo on the program’s website, with a direct link to their hiring department. APT has over 100 company logos on its website and student enrollment has exceeded program goals. Students can receive a notice every time an employer posts a relevant job.

Program Alignment

At all the colleges, faculty took the lead in course and program development associated with the CBE programs. At Edmonds Community College, faculty worked with industry subject-matter experts as well as instructional designers to develop new curriculum. The panels identified competencies for each course and developed online learning materials linked to each competency. After creating assessments, the faculty had them reviewed by employers and experts.

Sinclair Community College’s CBE program is working to align program competencies with job skills of the future. Sinclair is located in Dayton, Ohio, where regional industries continue to see significant transformation.

David Siefert, co-director of Accelerate IT, developed a model for business engagement that reaches out to senior executives to learn about their operational plans for the next five years. The executives are helping the college develop a regional staffing plan focused on employment growth for information technology, in healthcare, the automotive industry, manufacturing, and technology.

After developing the staffing plan, the next step is to create job specifications associated with high-growth areas. According to Siefert, “The job specifications then inform our competency-based programs, including validating existing programs and showing the need for adjustments.” He said the process helps Accelerate IT prepare students for jobs that are expanding.

In aligning CBE programs with jobs that are growing, community colleges are helping students prepare for the labor market. Some programs are also engaging with business partners to enrich career development.

Austin Community College has developed an automated process for students to create online portfolios. The portfolios are housed on the APT program’s website and include a personal statement, a resume, and a work product that shows competency in the field (such as a website for those in web programming). Industry partners get early access to the portfolios, which are searchable by the job description the company is seeking to fill.

The APT program also engages human resources staff in mock interviews with students who are nearing completion. According to Sam Greer, “Employers get a first glimpse at prospective applicants, and our graduates get access to networking and jobs. It’s a service going both ways.”

Challenges and Opportunities

Partnerships require time and resources from community colleges as well as business. Some challenges include:

Finding the right people within a company. Being clear about your needs helps in identifying the best match. Do you want:

• Logos and links for your website? HR staff.

• Information about the emerging job skills? Executives.

• Advice on competencies, assessments, or skills matching? Line staff and managers.

• Internships and mock job interviews? HR staff.

Dealing with industry turnover. Sending out regular notices can help identify, through returned emails, those who have moved.

Maximizing benefits for participants.

For busy people to remain involved, the work must be meaningful—for them, for their company, and for their community.

Based on the work of community colleges, CBE programs appear to offer new opportunities to engage with industry, with benefits in student recruitment, program development, and career development. According to Jim Minkler, vice president for learning at Spokane Falls Community College, “There’s been nothing but positive reactions from business. They say:

‘We don’t care how many hours they sat in a seat. We want them to learn and be able to show their competence.’ ”

Sally Johnstone is vice president for academic advancement at Western Governors University. Thad Nodine, a novelist and writer specializing in education policy, is tracking the colleges’experiences in creating CBE programs.

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