U.S. lags in vocational credentials

Americans earn fewer vocational degrees than our competitors overseas, notes Kyla Calvert on PBS NewsHour. That’s the key to why the U.S. isn’t first in the world in college degrees.

U.S. Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell

U.S. Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell

“Yes, we lag our peers in helping adult students develop skills that are valued today and tomorrow in the market place,” responds U.S. Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell.  Technical colleges that help students earn vocational credentials have very high graduation and job placement rates, says Mitchell.

“These are not yesterday’s ‘voc ed’ programs, these are really high-tech training programs that also involve the 21st Century deeper learning skills of collaboration, problem-solving, creative thinking – the things that are needed all the way up and down the employment pipeline,” he says.

How do you balance innovation, such as competency-based credentials, with the need to ensure students are earning credentials that are valued in the labor market? asks Calvert.

That’s a problem with traditional education, too, answers Mitchell.

. . . competency-based education has an opportunity to shorten that cycle, because of the specificity of the competencies that students are learning, their attachment to very specific tasks or jobs in the marketplace and then feedback about whether students are learning those or not. It’s harder to do with a history major . . .

Is there a danger that these narrowly-focused credentials won’t hold their value as the marketplace changes?

There are two worries there. One is the old vocational worry, where you’re training people for yesterday’s job. And I think that with active participation of employers in the design of these programs, we’re getting employers who are looking five or 10 years out, not just looking to fill five sales positions tomorrow. . . . The second issue is that I think that we need to be careful that in modularizing or compartmentalizing some of these very specific competencies that we’re not losing the overall arc of higher education, which is a value that is transformative in lots of ways, not just the accumulation of skills.

The administration’s college ratings will “provide sensible, credible, clear information to families,” said Mitchell. The goal is to help families and the public understand how the college investment pays off.

Mastery + modules = job training revolution

Online competency-based education is the most “disruptive” innovation in higher education, write Michelle R. Weise and Clayton M. Christensen in Hire Education.

Online competency-based providers create cost-effective, adaptable pathways to the workforce by breaking learning into competencies rather than courses, they write.

The fusion of modularization with mastery-based learning is the key to understanding how these providers can build a multitude of stackable credentials or programs for a wide variety of industries, scale them, and simultaneously drive down the cost of educating students for the opportunities at hand. These programs target a growing set of students who are looking for a different value proposition from higher education—one that centers on targeted and specific learning outcomes, tailored support, as well as identifiable skillsets that are portable and meaningful to employers. Moreover, they underscore the valuable role that employers can play in postsecondary education by creating a whole new value network that connects students directly with employers.

Strong partnerships between online competency-based providers and employers will become more important than college rankings and accreditation, Weise and Christensen predict.

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.

Colleges partner for manufacturing program

Nashua Community College (NCC) and Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America will partner on an advanced manufacturing program that will blend online and competency-based learning, reports AP.

The Advanced Manufacturing by Innovation and Design program will create a path for students to move from a certificate in advanced manufacturing to an associate degree in precision manufacturing and mechanical design.

Students will use College for America’s competency-based curriculum, which is built around online projects, while also learning hands-on skills in NCC labs. Local businesses will help students gain real-world experience.

“Industry partners are key to the program’s success and will play a pivotal role in the instructional design of (the program), in close collaboration with College for America’s innovative teaching and learning model and Nashua Community College’s rigorous Advanced Manufacturing curricula,” said NCC President Lucille Jordan.

Colleges create competency-based pilots

Competency-based programs in information technology are in the works at 11 community colleges. Western Governors University, a pioneer in online competency-based education (CBE), is helping with the pilots with financial support from the U.S. Labor Department and the Gates Foundation, write Sally Johnstone, WGU’s vice president for academic advancement, and writer Thad Nodine on Inside Higher Ed. 

Most of the pilots are starting with certificates in fields such as computer system specialist, business software specialist, networking and programming. Students will be able to build on their certificates to earn degrees.

In competency programs, students progress at their own pace as they demonstrate mastery of knowledge and skills. Learning– not time — is they key variable. At all 11 colleges, faculty members developed the new CBE courses, sometimes working with industry representatives.

For example, faculty at Sinclair Community College revised the curriculum to align with new Ohio standards in information technology and with industry certifications. Working with instructional designers, faculty members “mapped competencies to content and assessment items.”

In comparison, faculty at Washington’s Columbia Basin College are using existing student objectives and textbooks, write Johnstone and Nodine.

“Mapping course objectives to student learning outcomes to achieve student success; that is not new,” said Gina Sprowl, workforce education chair and professor of accounting (at Lone Star College in Texas). “But taking the course and building it to achieve specific outcomes from the outset, that was new.”

Alan Gandy, assistant professor at Lone Star, said . . . faculty are “breaking down the competencies, matching them to the assessments, so the student will see what piece they are working on in the puzzle. They’ll see the big picture, why they’re studying this and how it matches to the overall competency.”

While instructors are “content experts and mentors,”their roles have shifted “from delivering lectures to providing timely academic tutoring and engagement,” write Johnstone and Nodine.

Some colleges are adding support services. At Edmonds Community College in Washington, a “mentor” will check in with each student weekly and serve as a “coach, troubleshooter, strategist and enthusiast.”

$10K degree isn’t impossible after all

When Gov. Rick Perry challenged Texas’s public universities to craft four-year degrees costing no more than $10,000, many said it was impossible, recalls Thomas K. Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Three years later, 12 Texas universities have announced $10,000 bachelor’s degrees and the idea has spread to Florida, Oklahoma and Oregon.

The rapid expansion of $10,000 degree offerings has not satisfied the “It’s impossible” critics. They note that the fledgling programs are limited to a few subject areas, mostly the applied sciences, and argue that the same model cannot work in other fields. Moreover, they point out, a number of the new offerings charge students $10,000 but do not actually reduce their schools’ cost of instruction and materials.

That’s a valid critique, writes Lindsay. The current $10,000 degree programs reduced the price charged to the student but ignored Perry’s suggestion to cut costs by using online learning and competency-based exams.

However, that’s changing.

Three higher-education partners — Texas A&M University-Commerce, South Texas College, and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) — just launched the “Affordable Baccalaureate Program,” the state’s first public university bachelor’s degree combining online learning and competency-based standards. Developed by community-college and university faculty . . . a new degree in organizational leadership can cost as little as $750 per term and allows students to receive credit for as many competencies and courses as they can master each term.

According to THECB’s website, students arriving “with no prior college credits should be able to complete the degree program in three years at a total cost of $13,000 to $15,000.” Students who enter having already satisfied their general-education requirements can complete the degree in two years, while those entering with “90 credit hours and no credential” can complete the degree “in one year for $4,500 to $6,000.”

Nationwide, college tuition and fees have risen 440 percent over the past 25 years, roughly four times the rate of inflation and nearly twice the rate of health-care cost growth, writes Lindsay. Total student-loan debt has risen to $1.2 trillion. Increasing federal subsidies so students can borrow more to pay higher tuition is fiscally unsustainable. So is increasing state subsidies for higher education.

Texas: $10K degree cuts tuition, not costs

Did Texas Just Discover the Cure for Sky-High Tuition?  asks Lara Seligman in The Atlantic. Not really, she concludes.

Texas universities are offering bachelor’s degrees for $10,000, including tuition, fees and textbooks, pushed by Gov. Rick Perry. Average tuition alone in Texas at a public four-year institution is $8,354 a year, close to the national average.

In the Lone Star State, 10 institutions have so far responded to the governor’s call with unique approaches, ranging from a five-year general-degree pipeline that combines high school, community college, and four-year university credits to a program that relies on competency-based assessments to enable students to complete a degree in organizational leadership in as little as 18 months.

Angelo State University has created a four-year interdisciplinary-studies program for an overall cost of $9,974.

The University of Texas (Arlington) will offer a low-cost bachelor’s to students who’ve earning dual-enrollment credits in high school and spent a year at a local community college.

Texas A&M University (San Antonio), has designed a new $10,000 degree in information technology and security which should help graduates find military and security jobs in the region.

Universities aren’t becoming more efficient, however, Seligman warns.

. . . most of these programs would only reduce the price tag for the student, not the cost to the institution of providing the degree. While select students might pay less overall, institutions must deliver the same faculty, facilities, time, and knowledge they provide to students paying full price for their degrees.

If universities don’t find ways to improve productivity, they’ll have trouble subsidizing low-cost degrees.

Adults pick affordable, online college

Western Governors University, a low-cost online university sponsored by several states, is a “disruptive innovator” in higher education, says Jamie Merisotis of the Lumina Foundation

WGU President Robert Mendenhall recently won the McGraw Prize for Education for WGU’s “flexibility, accessibility and affordability,” reports Kathy Kristof  in the Tacoma News Tribune.

WGU is designed for adults. The average student is 36 years old. Some 82 percent are low-income, minority, rural or the first in their family to earn a college degree.

Although the entire school is online, each student has a mentor who works essentially as a college counselor, helping manage the student’s course schedule and checking regularly on his or her progress. The course instructors hold webinars and online study sessions, and can be reached to help students having difficulty with their studies.

The mentors and instructors mostly work from their homes, keeping in contact with students online and over the phone.

WGU instructors aren’t tenured. “Instructors are evaluated based on how well their students do in class and whether their students are satisfied and progressing well in their programs,” writes Kristof.

Students move at their own pace, earning credit when they demonstrate competency. As a result, the average WGU graduate receives a BA in 2 1/2 years.

(Orleatha) Smith said her classes at WGU were challenging, but she completed one of her full-semester classes in a single week. Because she had been working in a related field for 13 years, she already knew almost everything being taught in the course. That allowed her to write the papers and take the tests for the course in record time.

“Instead of everybody coming to the same class and sitting there for the same period of time, we tailor education to the individual,” WGU’s Mendenhall said. “Why should you sit in a class for four months when you know 95 percent of the material?”

A nonprofit, WGU charges $2,800 per semester no matter how many units students take. The average graduate pays less than $15,000 for a four-year degree.

Via EdReformer.