There’s a growing wave of enthusiasm for degrees based on competency rather than credit hours. Echoing Sherman Dorn, Matt Reed asks whether high ed should just drop the “hours” from “credit hours.” His answer: Because then “credits” could mean anything or nothing.
For-profit providers have an incentive to inflate credits, writes Reed, who’s worked in the for-profit sector.
In my DeVry days, we were careful with the weekend program — which was specifically geared at working adults — to keep the number of classroom hours congruent with the requirements for the number of credits given, even when it became inconvenient. The idea was to avoid the suspicion that fell upon certain competitors, who made a habit of awarding outsize numbers of credits for various courses to both make it easier for students to complete programs and to keep their own labor costs down.
. . . If we just declare that credits mean whatever a given provider says they mean, then there’s no basis for denying federal funding or regional accreditation to a college that awards twelve credits for a three-hour class and a paper. And now that many of those classes are online — in which the entire conceit of “seat time” becomes vaporous — there would be nothing at all to put the brakes on a given college twisting “credits” to mean whatever is convenient at the time.
The “credit hour” was at least based on something, even though it was the wrong thing, he writes.
Competencies require a reliable way to document that students have acquired the skills they claim. That’s not simple. Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based College for America — the first to receive approval for federal financial aid — doesn’t accept transfer credits. That doesn’t answer the question: How will a student transfer from a competency-based college to a credit-based one?
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.
With the help of Labor Department grants, community colleges are accelerating job training programs aimed at adults and “stacking” workforce credentials, reports Inside Higher Ed.
Working with employers, Massachusetts’ 15 community colleges have accelerated training for jobs in health care, advanced manufacturing, information technology, biotechnology, green energy and financial services.
In addition to prior-learning assessment and competency-based education, colleges are creating stackable credentials. Students can earn a short-term certificate, find a job and return later to add a higher credential.
For advanced manufacturing, the final product was a pyramid of competencies employees should ideally master to work at various job levels. The colleges worked with manufacturers statewide to develop those standards.
For example, in the precision machining field, entry-level jobs like assemblers or warehouse workers should have skills in five major areas: shop math, blueprint reading, metrology, problem solving and workplace readiness. But further up the pyramid, supervisors and managers should hold certificates and degrees in manufacturing technology, as well as more learned skills, such as programming, and a minimum number of hours working in the industry.
Stacking also works well for health-care credentials, said Ana Sanchez, the “career and college navigator” at Springfield Technical Community College. “Everybody wants to be a nurse,” but not everyone has the math and science skills needed. In one or two semesters, students can earn a certificate as a patient care technician or medical admin. It can be a quick route to the workforce and, for some, the first step on the path to a nursing degree.
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.
Students earning credits for competency will be eligible for federal student aid, confirmed the U.S. Education Department in a letter this week. The “department is poised to approve an application by Southern New Hampshire University to award aid based on the direct assessment of student learning,” notes the Chronicle of Higher Education.
By clarifying that colleges may apply under the “direct assessment” provision—and encouraging them to do so—the Education Department is signaling a willingness to move beyond “seat time”—the time students spend in class—in awarding aid. That has important implications for new models of education, supporters of the provision say.
“It moves away from time as a proxy for learning, and that is key,” said Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University.
In the letter, David A. Bergeron, acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education, said competency-based programs “have the potential for assuring the quality and extent of learning, shortening the time to degree/certificate completion, developing stackable credentials … and reducing the overall cost of education.”
Martha J. Kanter, undersecretary of Education, told reporters the department will “be very careful” not to approve aid for fraudulent programs. Colleges will have to link their competencies to credit hours and earn accreditors’ approval of the equivalencies.
Americans value higher education, but worry about its cost and quality, concludes a Gallup/Lumina Foundation poll.
“Americans want a more accessible and affordable system of higher education, one that does more to recognize and reward the personal skills, knowledge and abilities that are genuinely valued in the workplace and can be linked to future learning opportunities,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, president of Lumina Foundation.
Only 26 percent of respondents believe the cost of higher education is affordable to anyone who needs it, reported America’s Call for Higher Education Redesign.
Most want to make it easier for adults to earn credentials. Seventy percent of those surveyed favored awarding credit based on mastery of content rather than time in class and 87 percent said students should receive college credit for knowledge and skills acquired outside of the classroom.
While 76 percent said traditional universities offer high-quality education, that drops to 54 percent for community colleges and 33 percent f0r 0nline colleges and universities.
Nearly everyone — 97 percent — said it is important to have a certificate or degree beyond a high school diploma. Of those who lack a postsecondary credential, 41 percent have considered going back to school in the last year.
Higher education is linked strongly to employment, notes the Chronicle of Higher Education. ”A good job is now what Americans want out of college, not just a degree.”said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education.
Three models of accelerated developmental education are catching on at community colleges, according to WestEd’s Game Changers series. Acceleration cuts the time in remedial courses, letting students enroll more quickly—or immediately—in for-credit courses that lead to a certificate or degree. Acceleration strategies include:
Helping students avoid developmental education whenever possible
Revising the developmental education curriculum to shorten the sequence, align it with transfer-level and career technical coursework, and make it more rigorous
Providing additional student supports that are integrated with coursework
Providing remediation simultaneously with courses that lead to credentials
Customizing and contextualizing remediation along multiple academic and career pathways so that students learn math or language arts concepts based on their specific needs and on their desired instructional programs
Monitoring progress at regular intervals based on demonstrated competency rather than on seat time
“The most essential principle is for faculty to rethink the content of the developmental education sequence,” says Katie Hern, director of the California Acceleration Project, and a Chabot College English instructor.
On the English side, I question the way we’ve typically broken out our curriculum—such as teaching grammar first, then the sentence, then you step it up to work on paragraphs for a semester, then personal essays. There are assumptions that academic literacy can be broken into a linear subscale—that leads to a terrible curriculum. At Chabot College, we have a principle that what you need to do is practice the exact things college-level English will ask you to do. It’s the opposite of fragmentation. You are reading books, doing higher-order thinking, and writing essays. And you do that in developmental education classes. Students feel like they’re in a college English class—they just aren’t as good at it yet and they need additional supports.
Community college faculty are well aware of the high failure rates in traditional developmental education and open to new high ideas, say acceleration advocates.
The Carnegie Unit, which measures learning based on time in class rather than actual learning, may be on the way out. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which developed the measure in 1906, will study ways to measure competency using a $460,000 Hewlett Foundation grant.
. . . the unit is a gauge of the amount of time a student has studied a subject. For example, a total of 120 hours in one subject, meeting four or five times a week for 40 to 60 minutes, for 36 to 40 weeks each year earns the student one “unit” of high school credit.
The Carnegie Unit was developed to push for higher standards, not to measure learning, says researcher Elena Silva. ”It is not a good universal measure for student progress. … We are curious to know how it might be changed and more aligned with better, richer tools for measurement.”
It’s about time to rethink the credit hour, writes Matt Reed, a community college administrator.
It’s now normal for degree programs to specify student learning outcomes, and to be able to measure them. That’s huge.
Online education has thrown the whole concept of “seat time” into question, too. Since most online instruction is asynchronous anyway, it’s becoming harder to say with a straight face that learning has to happen in 75 minute chunks.
Now, MOOCs are starting to raise issues about the notion of “credit” itself, even independent of the “hour” part.
. . . At the same time, the federal financial aid programs are actually getting more persnickety about the most backward-looking elements of the credit hour, in response mostly to abuses in the for-profit sector.
Financial aid and faculty contracts are based on credit hours, at least in part, Reed writes. Figuring out an alternative will require a lot of work. So let’s get started.
Southern New Hampshire University plans a $5,000 online, competency-based associate degree that would “blow up the credit hour — the connection between college credit and the time students spend learning,” reports Inside Higher Ed. A regional accreditor has approved the university’s “direct assessment” method. The university will apply for federal approval to qualify students for federal aid.
In competency-based models, students demonstrate their learning through assessments, notes Inside Higher Ed. “If the tests lack rigor and a link to real competencies, this approach starts looking like cash for credits.”
Southern New Hampshire’s “College for America” will start with an associate degree in general studies and add competency-based bachelor’s degree programs.
The university will assess 120 competencies for the associate degree. Lumina’s Degree Qualifications Profile, which attempts to define what degree holders should know and be able to do, served as the basis for defining those competencies, along with the university’s general education goals. Other sources were used as well, like the U.S. Department of Labor’s competency pyramids.
Competencies are broken into 20 distinct “task families,” which are then divided into three task levels. For example, the “using business tools” family includes tasks like “can write a business memo,” “can use a spreadsheet to perform a variety of calculations” and “can use logic, reasoning and analysis to address a business problem.”
When students pass tests on the competencies within a family, “they will be deemed to have the knowledge and skills necessary to pass a 100- or 200- level, three-credit course,” according to the university.
The university is partnering with large employers, including ConAgra Foods and the City of Memphis, which will steer workers to the university’s College for America.
Twenty other colleges and universities are working with Western Governors University — also online and competency-based — on degree programs that will let students earn relatively low-cost degrees at their own pace and in their own homes. Competency-based programs are expanding, according to a Lumina report.
Community college students will be able to demonstrate competency to earn credits in self-paced classes, reports the Texas Tribune. It’s the Western Governors University model — but classes will include classroom instruction as well as online learning.
WGU Texas and three community colleges — Sinclair Community College in Ohio, Broward College in Florida and Texas’ own Austin Community College — have received a shared $12 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to develop curricula for key technology fields that allow students to move at their own pace in courses that aren’t purely internet based.
ACC hopes to offer self-paced computer programming courses as early as the fall of 2013. Students who earn an associate’s degree will be able to go on to WGU Texas for a bachelor’s degree.
(ACC President Richard Rhodes) said using “competency units” rather than credit hours would allow the school to be more responsive to the region’s workforce needs. If, for example, a company wanted employees to acquire certain skills quickly, they might be able to “invert the degree” by teaching the requested skills first and then later adding general education requirements necessary for an associate’s degree.
Computer science students could earn 11 industry certifications, an associate degree and a bachelor’s, says Mark David Milliron, chancellor of WGU Texas, a former Gates Foundation official.
The competency model could expand to other majors, Rhodes says.