Online competency ed is on the rise

Online “competency-based education” (CBE) is a faster, cheaper, more flexible way for adults to earn college credentials valued by employers. It’s coming on strong.

“CBE lets students progress at their own pace,” I write on Open Standard. “They may watch mini-lectures, read, work through exercises, chat with virtual classmates, consult with a faculty mentor – or apply what they’ve already learned on the job, in the military or through independent study.”

“The idea of divorcing learning from seat time – rewarding people for mastery – has radical implications,” said Julian Alssid, chief workforce strategist at Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America.

To earn credit, students demonstrate mastery of a “learning objective” by taking quizzes and tests, writing papers or completing a project. Those who haven’t fully mastered a competency don’t get a B or a C. They keep trying until they learn it.

Almost all online CBE programs target working adults. That’s a large group: Some 37 million Americans, nearly a quarter of the workforce, tried college but dropped out before earning a degree. They don’t have the skills – or the sheepskin – to move up to better jobs. Another six million are trying to earn a living with only a high school diploma.

“Online competency-based education is revolutionary because it marks . . . the right learning model, the right technologies, the right customers, and the right business model,” wrote Clayton Christensen and Michelle Weise in Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution.

Western Governors University, the pioneer, is helping community colleges set up online CBE programs. The University of Wisconsin, Northern Arizona University and dozens of other institutions have jumped in. The University of Michigan just announced its first online CBE program, which is aimed at health professionals.

Second time isn’t the charm

Nearly all college completion data looks at first-time students. Completion rates are low for non-first-time students, reports Inside Track. Only 33.7 percent of returning students completed their degree, compared with 54.1 percent of first-time students.


Only 27 percent of non-first-time community college students completed a certificate or degree in eight years, compared to 36 percent of first-timers, the study estimates.

At two-year for-profit colleges, where most students are seeking certificates, completion rates were 40 percent for adult learners and 62 percent for first-time students.

“If our nation expects the more than 30 million adults with some college but no degree to complete a credential, we need to do a much better job supporting them once they’ve made the decision to re-enroll,” says Dave Jarrat, vice president of marketing at InsideTrack, which organized the study.

Stopout rate is 94% at 2-year colleges

“Stopping out” — taking a semester or more off — is very common for Texas community college students, according to a new study, reports USA Today.  Ninety-four percent of community college students who first enrolled in 2000 stopped out at least once, Toby Park, a Florida State professor, found.

Of students who completed a degree, 76 percent were one-time stopouts. Taking two or more breaks sharply cut the odds of completion.

Mentoring and personal relationships were what kept Tim Semonich, now a junior at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., enrolled at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem on his second try.

Semonich dropped out his first semester, thinking that college wasn’t for him. After working for two years, he decided to give college a second chance.

“The second time, I put more effort in and made connections with professors and deans,” Semonich says.

The more he got involved with school activities, such as speech team and student government, the more he enjoyed it. Semonich later went on to earn a full scholarship to Moravian.

Taxpayers spent nearly $4 billion from 2004 to 2009 on community college students who dropped out after their first year, reports USA Today.

Celeste Brewer stopped out of the University of Florida and Santa Fe Community College (Florida). “If I was offered work, then I would skip class because I had to pay my bills,” she says. She got a third chance at Miami Dade College, where she’s close to a degree in aviation administration.

After one year at the University of California, Michelle Willens stopped out. Forty years later, she’s working on a bachelor’s degree. In The Atlantic, she writes about what it’s like to be a middle-aged college student.

College is worth the cost — usually

worthIs college worth it?  Two new reports provide different perspectives, writes Scott Carlson in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The “overeducated American” is a “myth,” states a new College Summit report. Workplace demand for college graduates is rising, according to Smart Shoppers: The End of the ‘College for All’ Debate?  College graduates earn 80 percent more than high school graduates, the report estimates. Even in jobs that don’t require a degree, more-educated workers earn significantly more.

However,  returns on the college investment have been exaggerated, concludes another new report, which focuses on higher education in California. The Economics of B.A. Ambivalence notes that most students take more than four years to complete a bachelor’s degree. In addition, some earn much less than others.

When the California Master Plan for Higher Education was enacted, in 1960, only 10 percent of Californians had a college degree, and the earnings gap between degree holders and non-degree holders was 35 percent. In 2010, they say, that earnings premium was 43 percent—higher than in the past, but still half the figure cited in the College Summit report. But, the researchers point out, the wage gap is higher now not because wages for college-degree holders have gone up, but because wages for people with only a high-school degree have gone down.

Graduating with burdensome debt is a higher risk, the researchers write.

College remains a good investment for the average California student and for American society. Nevertheless, it is true that more graduates now run the risk of not earning enough to make their investment in college worthwhile. This reality explains why many families of ordinary means are increasingly skeptical about paying for college.

“College is a ‘steppingstone’ to the middle class—not a ticket,” the authors warn. “It deserves the scrutiny an individual would give to any risky investment.”

They recommend better advising  and more loan-repayment options.

Adults who’ve left school without a degree ask: Is College Worth It for Me? But few look at graduation and default rates when they choose a postsecondary option, reports Public Agenda. And many don’t understand that for-profit higher education will be more expensive.

Judging colleges by graduates’ pay: Who counts?

If colleges and universities are judged by former students’ earnings, community colleges are bound to look bad, writes Matt Reed in Inside Higher Ed.

Sarah graduates from her local community college. For years, while she’s getting a bachelor’s and medical degree, her earnings are low. Eventually, she’s a high-paid physician. “At what point do we count her earnings?,” asks Reed. Does the community college get any credit for her success?

Basically, no. Someone who earns an AA on the way to a BA is counted only as a four-year graduate by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he writes. The most successful community college graduates don’t count as community college graduates.

Community colleges provide workforce credentials, often to adult students, and transfer degrees, usually to traditional-age students. Higher-achieving students usually go for transfer degrees, but they won’t earn more till they complete a bachelor’s degree.

. . .  community colleges are subject to a brutal and systematic bias when the question of graduates’ earnings comes up. The higher-achieving, higher-salary students are excluded from the count, since they show up as bachelor’s degree grads. . . . The students who deliberately targeted lower-paying jobs — often due to time pressure — do show up, though. Then we get compared to the four-year colleges — many of whose graduates started at community colleges — unfavorably. This is madness.

Community colleges can’t be compared to four-year universities, unless there’s a way to factor in student characteristics and look at the value added. Community colleges (and for-profit colleges) enroll many high-risk students with weak academic skills. Most are juggling jobs and family responsibilities. It’s not Harvard. It’s not even Enormous State University.

Skill-based credentials compete with degrees

Traditional college degrees, which cost time and money, are’t the only option for adults seeking to boost their job prospects, writes Anne Kim in the Washington MonthlySkill-based credentials can offer a cheaper, faster, more flexible alternative.

Imagine you’re a twenty-five-year-old high school graduate. You’re married, you have two kids, you work full-time as an office manager for a local company. You’ve taken a few classes at your community college nearby but haven’t finished your degree. With a family to raise, you want to earn more money, perhaps working with computers, your passion. You think of yourself as the creative type, and your friends tell you there’s a good living to be made in Web design. What do you do?

One option is to enroll at DeVry University, where an associate’s degree in Web design will cost you roughly $39,000 in tuition and five full semesters—at least two years—of class time. You could also go back to your local community college and pay much less, about $2,000, for an eight-course certificate in Web design basics.

Or you could simply log on to, and, from the comfort of your home, learn what you need to know, at your own pace—for free.

Mozilla pioneered “digital badges” in 2011. Participants demonstrate their skills to move up the badge ladder. The would-be web designer could display “Code Whisperer” on her digital resume, then move up to higher-level badges.  “Mozilla Webmaker Master” is “the Eagle Scout” of Mozilla digital bases for web designers, Kim writes.

More than 1,000 groups and employers, including NASA, Disney-Pixar, the Smithsonian Institution, the New York City Department of Education, and Microsoft, are now offering or honoring badges recognizing a wide variety of skills.

Badges aren’t the only skills-based credential. Some companies are working with community colleges or local four-year universities to offer college credit for skills learned on the job.

“Access to cheaper and faster post-secondary education” is a boon to working adults, writes Kim. “But these innovations could also threaten the business model” of colleges and universities that are unwilling or unable to adapt.

Competency unbundles college

When nearly three out of four students aren’t enrolled in full-time, four-year degree programs, it’s time to go beyond the credit hour, writes the Gates Foundation’s Daniel Greenstein on Impatient Optimists.

The rigidness of semesters and courses and credit hours doesn’t work for adults who are juggling jobs, family and other priorities while they also work toward a degree – an elaborate dance that too often ends in students leaving school with no degree, but lots of debt. Many of today’s students aren’t interested in a classic college experience of dorms and all-nighters. Rather, they need college to be “unbundled,” and to be able to integrate it selectively, sometimes a course at a time, into their busy and full lives.

Competency-based education, which assesses what students know and can do, provides the flexibility today’s students need, argues Greenstein. In the competency model, students “progress at their own pace and to go deep on material they haven’t mastered, while not having to spend time or tuition on concepts and knowledge they’ve learned elsewhere.”

 Not only are competency-based programs better for so many of today’s students, but they promise considerable advantages for employers, who, right now, evaluate newly-minted grads primarily on where they went to college and their grade point average. Because competency-based programs rely on regular student assessments of specific skills and abilities, they can provide employers with more detailed information about what prospective workers know and can do.

Lumina’s Tuning USA project, the European Union’s Bologna process and the American Association of Colleges & Universities’ LEAP initiative have evaluated the essential elements and outcomes that students must master to earn different degrees and credentials, Greenstein writes. Western Governors University led the way to online competency degrees. Now more traditional institututions, such as Southern New Hampshire University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin system will be offering credits and credentials for competency.

Two-Pell proposal

A 19-year-old living with parents and seeking a bachelor’s degree and a 29-year-old single mother looking for job credentials have very different needs that can’t be served by a single Pell Grant, argues Rethinking Pell Grants by a College Board study group headed by Sandy Baum and funded by the Gates and Lumina Foundations. The group calls for creating Pell Grant Y for students who start college before they turn 25 and Pell Grant A for older students.

The Y (for young) grant creates incentives to finish a degree quickly. Students could take as many credits as they wish, including a summer session. They could take up to 125 percent of the credits required by their program and earn up to 150 credits, the maximum for a bachelor’s degree. Transfer students would have to show academic progress to receive additional Pell funds.

“Another unit of progress” — such as a measure of prior learning or competency — could be substituted for the credit hour, the policy brief adds.

The Pell Grant A (for adults) would look very different, notes Inside Higher Ed.

Forty-four percent of Pell recipients are 25 and older. Only 56 percent complete a credential within six years, compared to 74 percent of younger students. Only 36 percent hope to earn a bachelor’s degree — and only three percent reach that goal. Most are seeking vocational certificates and associate degrees. Thirty-one percent enroll in for-profit colleges, twice the percentage of younger students.

Pell A would be tailored to students seeking job training.

Students would apply once, before beginning their programs, and eligibility would be based on income — with students eligible for a full grant, half a grant or nothing throughout their entire college careers. The size of the full Pell Grant would be set at a level that would allow community college students to pay for tuition, fees, books and supplies. As with the Pell Grant Y, the size of individual awards would be determined based on the number of credits a student is pursuing.

Since many adult students would have to stop working to attend college full-time, the group also calls for the government to require or provide incentives for states to give students access to child-care assistance, Section 8 housing subsidies, food stamps and other welfare programs. And recipients of the Pell Grant A would also be required to get career counseling, which would be provided by the One-Stop Career Centers — which offer job training referrals, counseling and other employment services — created by the Workforce Investment Act.

Some older students want to earn a bachelor’s degree and some younger students are seeking vocational credentials, the report concedes. “However, age is highly correlated with these different paths.”

The study group also proposes creating federal education savings accounts for low-income students, starting at age 11 or 12, who are likely to be eligible for Pell aid in the future. Each year five to 10 percent of the Pell Grant would be deposited. It would be available when the student turns 17 to pay for  higher education but would expire when the student turns 24.

Every year, students and their parents would receive a notification of how much money is in the account, as well as an estimate of the Pell Grant, state grants and tax benefits for which they would be eligible if they were already enrolled in college.

For $3.7 billion, the accounts would encourage young people from disadvantaged families to make college plans.

How to fix higher ed

Among the One Hundred Great Ideas for Higher Education suggested to the National Association of Scholars are calls to require students to memorize poetry, memorize American texts, study logic, debate, statistics, etymology, U.S. history, grammar and writing and perform physical labor.

Robin Fox, a Rutgers social theory professor, suggests giving students alternatives to the four-year degree, such as certificates in skilled trades.

. . .  what we need is a reduction in residential four-year institutions and an expansion of the community college system, with primacy given to extension and online courses for those already working in the profession or skill of their choice.

. . . Among college students, those doing science, engineering and math degrees should attend for free, while those who study arts, social studies, media studies, cultural studies (cultural anything), and particularly women’s and gender studies should have to pay double. Then let the market sort it out.

Education Sector’s Andrew Gillen calls for publishing earnings outcomes for all degree-granting programs, using IRS or Social Security data.

My suggestion is to make it clear to students whether they’re on the remedial, vocational or academic track while they’re young enough to do something about it — or set more achievable goals.

I’d like to see a program that would analyze a student’s grades, test scores, and self-reported motivation and study skills to predict future success. Let’s say Ned Ninth-grader learns he has a 1 percent chance of earning a medical degree (his stated ambition), a 10 percent chance at a bachelor’s degree, a 20 percent chance at an associate degree, a 50 percent shot at a vocational certificate, and a 65 percent chance of a high school diploma.

He gets information on what jobs he might do if he reaches various levels and what he can do now to increase his options. Maybe Ned will work harder, raise his grades, and have a real shot at an associate degree in radiology or a pharmacy tech certificate. Honest information would be great for students—and would reduce colleges’ remedial burden.

J. M. Anderson, a dean at Illinois Valley Community College, adds a 101st idea after teaching a night class for working adults and day classes for traditional-age students: Don’t let anyone under 21 into college.

Colleges rely heavily on placement exams

Most colleges use placement tests alone — usually ACCUPLACER or COMPASS — to determine whether students start in remedial or college-level courses, despite concerns about inaccurate placement, according to a National Assessment Governing Board study. Only a small minority of colleges use high school grades, class rank or other criteria to determine placement.

Colleges don’t agree on what cut scores indicate college readiness, writes Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed. Community colleges typically require a higher score than four-year colleges and universities.

Half of all undergraduates and 70 percent of community college students take at least one remedial course. Most will not go on to complete a credential. Some reformers think remedial courses — not poor preparation — are the problem.

Many students are placed unnecessarily in remedial courses, according to several Community College Research Center studies.

For example, among two large samples of community college students who were deemed to have remedial needs based on standardized placement tests, up to a third could have passed college-level classes with a grade of B or better. (Companies that produce the tests have defended them in response to the studies and resulting criticism.)

The research also found that high school GPAs are better predictors of student success than placement tests.

However, grades may not say much about the many community college students who’ve been out of school for years. At the Community College of Baltimore County, for example, the median age is 28. Instead of evaluating high school transcripts, CCBC provides pre-test workshops and practice exams to help new students do well on the placement tests.