Competency catches on

Competency-based education isn’t an experiment at Bellevue College near Seattle, writes Paul Bradley on Community College Week.  The college’s first CBE program — a business software specialist certificate program — has proven very popular.

“The students seem to love it,” said Tom Nielsen, the college’s vice president for instruction. “We are seeing that most students are going through their course sequences faster.”

Western Governors University, which pioneered CBE, is helping 11 community colleges develop their own CBE degree and certificate programs. The U.S. Department of Labor and the Gates Foundation are funding the initiative.

Competency-based education flips “the time-mastery relationship,” Sally M. Johnstone, vice president for academic advancement at WGU, wrote in Educause Review:

In a classroom-based model, all students start and end their learning experience at the same time. During a term of study, some students will master most of the materials and earn high grades; others will master less of the material and earn lower grades; and still others will master only about half the material and receive a failing grade. So, while these failing students know a considerable portion of the material, their only option is to take the entire class over again. This is discouraging to students, and some might well give up on the whole higher-education experience.

In CBE programs, students work toward mastery at their own pace, within the constraints of financial aid, institutional, and state policies. When students demonstrate mastery of the skills and knowledge designated by a course’s faculty, they pass the course. Students can progress through courses either sequentially or take several at a time, depending on their study habits and time constraints.”

Community colleges have “close links with employers,” says Thad Nodine, who’s following the project. “Austin Community College has over 100 employer partners.”

Adapting the WGU model isn’t easy, says Nielsen, the Bellevue College vice-president.

Under the CBE model, assessments determine whether a student has mastered a specific competency before moving on to the next one. But some states require that colleges issue a letter grade. Reconciling the two can be an arduous task.

Colleges also must carefully craft the CBE programs to ensure that competencies are valid and robust and that diverse students studying at their own pace receive strong academic support. Academic support needs to be flexible, Johnstone said. Learning resources must be available anytime. Assessments must be secure and reliable, based on the expertise of industry and academic subject-matter experts.

Four Washington state community colleges are working on CBE certificates, but next year the stakes will be raised. The state will launch an online, competency-based associate degree in business at 13 of the state’s 34 community and technical college.  The degree program will include English composition, accounting, economics, business calculus, public speaking, political science, sociology and statistics. Fast-paced students will be able to complete the degree in 18 months.

The surge in competency-based degrees is challenging accreditors, who “must seek to ensure academic quality without quashing promising ideas,” reports Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed.  Guidance from the federal government has been “sluggish and sometimes confusing,” said officials of three regional accrediting agencies, who spoke at a meeting organized by the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).

Competency-based education needs quality control to really take off, said Barbara Gellman-Danley, who became president of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools two months ago. That’s because the entrance of “bad actors” — low-quality programs that look like diploma mills — could trigger a backlash.

“Direct assessment” of students’ prior learning is especially challenging because “there are no courses, teaching professors or grades.”

Competency-based education works well for working adults, writes Julian L. Alssid, chief workforce strategist at College for America.

Accreditors: Jellyfish or thugs?

Are accrediting bodies toothless jellyfish, or jackbooted thugs?” asks Matt Reed on Confessions of a Community College Dean @insidehighered.

Accreditation agencies enforce a producers’ cartel, argues Andrew Kelly in Forbes. It’s hard for new providers to get approval if they don’t resemble their predecessors, “but once you’re in the club, it’s remarkably rare to get kicked out.”

But City College of San Francisco‘s accrediting panel tried to shut down the long-established college, writes Reed. Judges and legislators came to the rescue.

“The California legislature passed unanimously (!) a bill to require the statewide community college accreditor to report directly to the legislature,” writes Reed. “The motive was to bring the accreditor to heel.”

 If the accrediting agency is really captured by incumbents, why is it giving incumbents a hard time?  Alternately, if it has an anti-incumbent agenda, as some have suggested, why?  If nothing else, the seeming “rogue” status of ACCJC calls into question the idea that peer review is necessarily clubby and insular.  In this case, it seems almost hostile.  The very independence from its sponsors that Kelly sees as an impossible dream strikes the California legislature as a clear and present danger.

. . . Accreditors can create barriers to entry, but they also force a certain honesty on providers who rely on federal financial aid.  (I’ll go farther.  If regional accreditors are such lapdogs, why do most for-profits avoid them in favor of so-called “national” accreditors?  And if regional accreditors are so clubby that nobody can get in, how is it that Phoenix and DeVry did?)

Accreditors have worked positive and professionally with Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based College for America, “despite the very real threat that a competency-based degree” poses to established colleges, writes Reed, who works in New England.

CCSF evaluators proposed probation

City College of San Francisco, fighting to remain accredited, received a boost this week with news that all 15 members of the accreditation commission’s evaluation team recommended a lesser penalty.

The recommendation for probation was revealed in a documented filed in connection with a lawsuit against the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Instead the commission told CCSF to “show cause” why it should retain accreditation in 2012. A year later, it moved to revoke accreditation, which would have made students ineligible for financial aid.

Last month, the commission gave CCSF two more years to improve its management and governance.

The panel, which wields enormous power over all community and junior colleges in California, has come under increasing scrutiny from educators, teachers unions and state and federal lawmakers who contend that it lacks transparency, operates with little oversight and relies too little on students’ academic progress when meting out sanctions

. . . U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) has criticized the panel for “potential intimidation and overzealousness,” and a state bill is pending that would require more “transparency, accountability and due process” in accreditation reviews.

The California Federation of Teachers and San Francisco City Atty. Dennis Herrera, meanwhile, have separately filed suit against the commission alleging political bias and conflict of interest.

Trustee Rafael Mandelman called the revelation “completely outrageous and unforgivable,” reports the Times. “This should remove any doubt that this is an irresponsible group of people who cannot be trusted to accredit our community colleges.”

Higher ed a la carte


Should students loans be available for job training?
Accreditation is a higher ed cartel, argues Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, on The Federalist. He proposes letting states accredit alternative postsecondary programs, such as job training, apprenticeships, hybrid on-campus/on-the-job models and distance-learning options. People seeking skills — but not necessarily a degree — could assemble the education they need, a la carte, using federal aid to pay their costs.

Under the federal Higher Education Act, students are eligible for Title IV student loans and grants only if they attend formally accredited institutions. That makes some sense, for purposes of quality control. Except that under the law, only degree-issuing academic institutions are allowed to be accredited. And only the U.S. Department of Education gets to say who can be an accreditor.

By blocking new competitors, the system drives up costs, argues Lee. That prices most Americans “out of the post-secondary opportunities that make the most sense for them” and plunges “most of the rest deep into debt to pursue an increasingly nebulous credential.”

The Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act would give states the power to create their own, alternative systems of accrediting Title IV-eligible higher education providers. . . . State-based accreditation would augment, not replace, the current regime. (College presidents can rest assured that if they like their regional accreditor, they can keep it.) But the state-based alternatives would not be limited to accrediting formal, degree-issuing “colleges.” They could additionally accredit specialized programs, apprenticeships, professional certification classes, competency tests, and even individual courses.

States could allow the Sierra Club to accredit an environmental science program, a labor union to accredit its apprenticeship program and Boeing to accredit an aerospace engineering “major,” Lee writes. Professors — or others with expertise — could go freelance, offering their teaching talents online.

In today’s customizable world, students should be able to put their transcripts together a la carte – on-campus and online, in classrooms and offices, with traditional semester courses and alternative scenarios like competency testing – and assistance should follow them at every stop along the way.

Employers already have shifted a lot of job training to community colleges. Now they could keep it in house — if their state agreed — with federal taxpayers footing the bill. Smashing the cartel could make today’s quality control problems even worse, responds Jordan Weissmann on Slate.

The entire point of requiring schools to be accredited before they can become eligible for federal aid is to make sure students don’t take out loans for a worthless education while burning taxpayer money in the bargain. As the rise of unscrupulous for-profit colleges demonstrates, the accreditors have basically abdicated that responsibility. Adding yet more accreditors into the mix, and making more programs eligible to profit off of loan dollars—without making it easier to kick schools out—would only worsen our problems with predatory colleges.

“Agencies might be more willing to punish a bad actor if they could downgrade its accreditation status rather than revoke it entirely—which is the only option available to them right now,” writes Weissmann. That’s one of the ideas proposed by New America policy analyst Ben Miller on EdCentral.

CCSF was ‘too big to fail’

City College of San Francisco has dodged a closure order and won two more years to improve, writes Kevin Carey, who directs education policy for the New America Foundation, in the New York Times. With 77,000 students, CCSF proved to be “too big to fail,” despite “chronic financial and organizational mismanagement.”

The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges had set a July closure data, but faced a “fierce political backlash . . . challenging its right to exist,” writes Carey. The closure threat apparently has passed.

If accreditors can’t hold a college responsible, he asks, who will?

California’s 112 community colleges are run by locally elected boards which are required by law to share decision-making power with faculty unions.

At City College, the faculty dominated, said the accrediting commission. The college hired many more tenured professors than it could afford.

The accreditor, an independent, nonprofit body, can block federal financial aid by denying accreditation. “But like an army with no weapons other than thermonuclear bombs, its power is too potent and blunt to use,” writes Carey.

Accreditors are also financed and managed as membership organizations of colleges. Other colleges contribute volunteers to conduct site visits and evaluations, and college administrators are generally loath to condemn peers at other institutions publicly, particularly since their turn for review will eventually come. As a result, only the absolute worst-case colleges even approach facing meaningful sanctions. Simple mediocrity is ignored.

Politicians generally take a hands-off approach to higher education. While many big-city mayors have staked their careers on turning around troubled K-12 school systems, it is rare to see a major political effort focused on fixing dysfunctional local community college.

There’s little oversight of private nonprofit colleges, even though many  “receive a vast majority of their revenue from federal financial aid,” adds Carey.

For-profit higher education has come under federal and state scrutiny. Yet Corinthian Colleges, which is closing down after multiple investigations, had not lost accreditation for any of its campuses.

On EdCentral, Ben Miller has suggestions for improving accreditation.

Reprieve! San Francisco college won’t close

“In a stunning turnabout, City College of San Francisco will not be forced to close” on July 31, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.  The college is expected to retain accreditation under new rules proposed Wednesday by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

The 19-member commission expects to change its rules, let City College request more time to comply with accrediting standards, and avoid what are widely viewed as the catastrophic consequences of shutting down a college of nearly 80,000 students who would have few other educational options.

CCSF will have two years to implement “new and sustained practices that meet standards of quality,”  said Barbara Beno, commission president.

The commission has been under heavy political pressure to give CCSF more time to deal with management and governance problems.

CCSF hopes for accreditation reprieve

Faced with losing accreditation on July 31, San Francisco City College supporters hope a proposed policy change will lead to a reprieve, reports the Los Angeles Times. However, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges won’t release details of the proposed new policy till Wednesday.

The Novato-based accrediting panel, which oversees California’s 112 community colleges, moved last year to revoke the City College of San Francisco’s accreditation, citing long-running financial and governance problems.

. . . During a presentation behind closed doors this week, systemwide Chancellor Brice Harris and City College Chancellor Arthur Q. Tyler, among others, told commission members that the college has addressed 95% of the deficiencies cited by the panel and argued for more time to meet all standards.

The accreditation crisis has turned into a highly politicized game of chicken, according to Inside Higher Ed. “Neither side is backing down while the fate of the college, its 77,000 students and even a besieged accreditor hang in the balance.”

CCSF will be able to delay losing accreditation until a lawsuit by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera is resolved. The trial is set for late October. The college also has filed an appeal.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, the minority leader in the House, threatens to close down the accrediting commission if it doesn’t give her home-district community college a break.

“ACCJC’s faulty reliance on outdated analysis of the health of City College, and its pursuit of an unworkable policy that ends state and federal funding to CCSF and puts the students and faculty in academic limbo is professionally crippling and destructive,” Pelosi said this week in a written statement, which two other Bay Area members of Congress signed. “Should this failure of leadership persist, new leadership is needed at ACCJC. The U.S. Department of Education should also consider whether to recertify ACCJC as an accrediting body.”

Commission leaders have offered to rescind the termination decision if CCSF drops its accreditation and applies as a new institution, triggering a two-year “candidacy” status.

Accrediting courses instead of colleges

Accrediting courses, instead of colleges, would let students customize their higher education and lower costs, argues Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation.

Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., has introduced a proposal to let states allow any entity to credential courses. The Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act—or HERO Act — resembles a proposal by Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican.

Currently, accreditation is a de facto federal enterprise, with federally sanctioned regional and national accrediting agencies now the sole purveyors of accreditation.

The result has been a system that has created barriers to entry for innovative start-ups—insulating traditional brick-and-mortar schools from market forces that could reduce costs—yet has made it difficult for students to customize their higher education experience to fully reach their earnings and career potential. And because entire institutions are accredited instead of individual courses, accreditation is a poor measure of course quality and a poor indicator of the skills acquired by students.

Sen. Lee explained the HERO Act in speech at Heritage last winter.

“Imagine having access to credit and student aid and for a program in computer science accredited by Apple or in music accredited by the New York Philharmonic; college-level history classes on site at Mount Vernon or Gettysburg; medical-technician training developed by the Mayo Clinic; taking massive open online courses offered by the best teachers in the world from your living room or the public library…

“This reform could allow a student to completely customize her transcript—and college experience—while allowing federal aid to follow her through all of these different options. Students could mix and match courses, programs, tests, on-line and on-campus credits à la carte, pursuing their degree or certification at their own pace while bringing down costs to themselves, their families and the taxpayers.”

Higher education groups are considering new accreditors to review online course providers, reports Inside Higher Ed. “Some details are emerging on two bids for new accrediting bodies for non-college providers of higher education, such as online course creators or issuers of digital badges.”

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is considering providing “quality review” for entities such as StraighterLine, which offers low-cost online courses but not credentials. 

Another approach, called Modern States, would review individual online courses, rather than institutions.

Rubio: Dream the affordable American Dream

Education and the American Dream was the theme of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s keynote speech at Making Community Colleges Work, a Next America session sponsored by National Journal at Miami Dade College.

The son of immigrants, Rubio used Pell Grants, student loans, work study and summer jobs to pay for a four-year degree and law school. He started his career as an attorney with $100,000 in student loans.

To find a good-paying job, “it is vital that you get the right degree geared toward the right industry,” Rubio said.

Nationally, majors such as business, liberal arts, and hospitality have underemployment rates at or above 50 percent. There are simply more graduates than jobs in these industries. Meanwhile, engineering, health services and education all have underemployment rates less than 25 percent. 

Students and their families need to be equipped with the information necessary to make well-informed decisions about which majors at which institutions are likely to yield the best return on investment. This is why I, along with Senator Ron Wyden, proposed the “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act,” which aims to give students reliable data on how much they can expect to make versus how much they can expect to owe.

Rubio called for making income-based repayment the universal method for student loans.  He also proposed an alternative to student loans known as Income Share Agreements.

Let’s say you are a student who needs $10,000 to pay for your last year of school. Instead of taking this money out in the form of a loan, you could apply for a “Student Investment Plan” from an approved and certified private investment group. In short, these investors would pay your $10,000 tuition in return for a percentage of your income for a set period of time after graduation – let’s say, for example, 4 percent a year for 10 years.

This group would look at factors such as your major, the institution you’re attending, your record in school – and use this to make a determination about the likelihood of you finding a good job and paying them back. . . . Your only obligation would be to pay that 4 percent of your income per year for 10 years, regardless of whether that ends up amounting to more or less than $10,000.

Income Share Agreements are a great idea, writes Richard Vedder. Investors “buy equity in students as opposed to lending to them.” The risk shifts from students to investors.

Rubio also called for better career and vocational education in high school, apprenticeships and “more pathways for working parents” at the community college level.

Reforming the “broken accreditation system” would open the door to “new, innovative and more affordable competitors,” he said. He proposed a new accrediting agency for online education. With standardized tests to demonstrate competency, students could learn online or on the job and earn a low-cost job certification or degree.

City College of SF wins accreditation reprieve

City College of San Francisco will not lose accreditation until a legal challenge to the revocation is resolved, reports Bay Cities News. An accrediting commission had set a July 31 revocation date, after charging CCSF with mismanagement and poor governance.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera contested the revocation decision by the western regional branch of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow’s injunction will be in effect until a trial is held. A trial date will be set at the end of January.

Karnow said in a 53-page decision that the injunction was justified because of the severe harm to students, teachers and the city if the college lost accreditation and had to close.

“Those consequences would be catastrophic,” Karnow wrote.

“Without accreditation, the college would almost certainly close and about 80,000 students would either lose their educational opportunities or hope to transfer elsewhere; and for many of them, the transfer option is not realistic.

Herrera’s lawsuit and a similar lawsuit by the California Federation of Teachers charge the commission used unfair, biased or illegal procedures, was prejudiced against the college’s “open access”  mission and that two evaluation teams lacked adequate representation by professors.

As Matt Reed predicted, CCSF is too big to fail.