Credits for competency

Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America has no courses — online or in person. It employs no teachers, just online coaches. Students complete assignments and projects to show their mastery of 120 “competencies,” such as distinguishing fact from opinion or conveying information through charts and graphs, reports the Boston Globe. Students can earn an accredited associate degree, then show potential employers an online portfolio of their work.

Last semester, Ashley Collins often faced a terrible choice: go to her night class, or pick up a waitressing shift to help pay her community college tuition. Class usually lost out.

As a former foster child with no family to help pay for college, the 21-year-old works three jobs while trying to stay in school.

This year, she switched colleges, and now does her schoolwork at home, in her pajamas when she feels like it.

Students move ahead at their own pace, paying $1,250 every six months. Collins is on track to complete a two-year degree in six months. If she’d continued working and taking classes at night, a degree could have taken 10 years, she told the Globe. She earns $9.91 an hour caring for developmentally disabled adults.

College for America started in January with 277 students enrolled through their jobs: groundskeepers, telemarketers, factory workers, gas station employees and caregivers at the nonprofit that employs Collins.

College for America passed a high hurdle in April when the U.S. Education Department agreed to provide financial aid to its students, the first time a program based on competency rather than “seat time” has been approved.

“The federal government is saying, maybe we should be paying for learning rather than time,” said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation, a prominent think tank. “I don’t want to be too hyperbolic about it, but it really could signal a new era in higher education.”

Southern New Hampshire, a private nonprofit, developed its online curriculum using online resources, including video lectures, readings and web sites, rather than writing its own study materials.

When students submit assignments, graders provide feedback within 48 hours. If it’s not good enough, students are told to try again.

Many of the assignments are practical. One presents students with hypothetical proposals for a vending machine contract for the employee lounge and ask him to write a memo evaluating the vendors. Then, a grader determines whether the students’ work demonstrates they have mastered five competencies, including writing a business memo, using logic, and making calculations in a spreadsheet.

Paul LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire’s presidents, hopes to offer a bachelor’s degree and enroll 350,000 students by 2018. In addition to working with employers, the college may partner with churches and community organizations to offer support to independent students.

Western Governors University, an online nonprofit created in 1997, offers competency-based, self-paced bachelor’s degree programs.

Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin system also are experimenting with competency-based programs, reports USA Today.

KnowledgeWorks looks at the federal role in competency education, focusing on K-12 schooling.