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Competency pilot produces first graduates

An experiment in online competency-based education has its first graduate, reports Inside Higher Ed. Less than 100 days after enrolling,  Zach Sherman, a 21-year-old sanitation worker in Ohio, earned a self-paced associate degree from College for America. Four others also have completed degrees.

Southern New Hampshire University launched the college in January

It is one of three institutions now offering “direct assessment” academic tracks, which are not based on the credit hour standard. That means students can control how fast they move through the program’s task-oriented homework, assignments and assessments. There are no formal instructors at the college — only academic coaches and reviewers who determine if students have mastered each task by checking each assignment and sending them back to students for more work until they demonstrate competency.

Sherman works nights at a ConAgra Foods plant that makes Slim Jim snack meats, usually working a 56-hour week. In three months, he earned the equivalent of 60 credits by mastering 120 competencies. In one month, he averaged 30 hours a week on schoolwork.

Most of College for America’s 500 students are enrolled through partnerships with employers such as ConAgra, Anthem, FedEx and the City of Memphis.

Sherman took vocational classes in high school, earned a diploma and enrolled in the local Edison Community College. But he quit after a year because he was “working crazy hours” at ConAgra.

When pressed, Sherman also says the traditional college classroom experience was underwhelming. His faculty and coursework at Edison were good, he says. But going to class reminded him of elementary school.

“I don’t necessarily like that sit-down format,” he says. “It felt like we were robots at times.”

Sherman has applied to be a sanitation supervisor job at the plant. His associate degree is “going to help me move up,” he believes.  “They’re really big on degrees.”

Sherman’s couldn’t transfer his community college credits to College of America’s program, which isn’t based on credit hours. But students can “use their knowledge and learning from previously taken college courses to more quickly demonstrate competencies,” explains Inside Higher Ed. If a graduate wants to go for a higher degree, the associate degree can be “translated” into course equivalencies.

Tuition was free for the first cohort. The next group will pay $2,500 a year and will be eligible for college aid, employer-paid tuition subsidies and Pell Grants.

College for America is a learning revolution that will help fill the job skills gap, writes Julian Alssid.