Career-minded students seek competency degrees

Career-minded adults are turning to “competency-based” degrees, reports U.S. News.  Online programs that award credits for mastery of skills and knowledge can provide a faster, cheaper route to a degree.

President Barack Obama is a fan of the idea. “If you’re learning the material faster, you can finish faster,” he said in a speech last year.

The Education Department is experimenting with financial aid eligibility for students in accredited competency programs.

Craig Kilgo, 29, is a project manager for the Department of Defense. A Cornell dropout, he’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in information science and technology in the “competency-based” Flexible Option offered by the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee.

 A traditional college program requires the student to “sit in the classroom and go through the material in lock step with everybody else,” says Aaron Brower, interim chancellor at the University of Wisconsin Extension, who is overseeing the Flexible Option. A regular online program allows you to go at your own pace, “but you still have to do A, B and C in sequence,” he says.

In a competency-based program such as UW’s, “you can skip A and B and go right to C, providing you can pass the assessments that show you have mastered the content of A and B,” says Brower.

And the assessments are not a matter of passing or failing. Instead, “You pass, or you haven’t yet passed,” he says. Students are assigned an academic success coach who, if they don’t succeed the first time, can provide extra guidance and supplemental materials.

Kilgo finished a web design course in three weeks, leveraging his on-the-job experience, instead of the typical 16 weeks.

UW students can take one course for $900 or choose the “all you can learn” option: as many courses as they can handle in three months for $2,250. Kilgo, who started with 63 credits, has finished 10 courses in two three-month periods. In another six months, he should have his degree for a total cost of $9,000.

Craig Kilgo and family

Craig Kilgo and family

UW also offers Flexible Option degrees in diagnostic imaging and nursing, a certificate in professional and technical communication, and an associate degree in arts and sciences.

Western Governors University offers online competency-based degrees in business, teaching, information technology and health. Northern Arizona University offers small business administration, computer information technology and liberal arts.

Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based College for America is spinning off its custom-made learning management system, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Federal grants are funding competency-based programs at community colleges. Indiana’s Ivy Tech will offer information technology degrees. Six Kentucky community colleges — Hazard Community and Technical College (HCTC), Big Sandy CTC, Jefferson CTC, Somerset Community College, Southeast Kentucky CTC, and West Kentucky CTC — have formed a consortium to develop competency-based degrees and certificates in information technology.

Feds will test aid for competency programs

North Carolina community colleges and state universities will award college credit for military training and experience.

Hoping to speed older students to a degree, the U.S. Education Department will allow some colleges to award credit — and student aid — for competency and prior learning, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. The “experimental sites” will be announced this week.

Traditionally, federal student aid has been limited to programs that award credits for hours of instruction, known as “seat time.”

Starting last year, the department has allowed a handful of colleges to provide federal financial aid to students enrolled in direct-assessment programs, notes the Chronicle.  “If the experiments prove successful, they could make it easier for competency-based programs to qualify for student aid, opening the federal coffers to a much wider swath of nontraditional programs”

The Education Department’s announcement was followed by unanimous House approval of HR 3136, which would create a competency-based demonstration project. The bipartisan bill was sponsored by Rep. Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican, and Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat.

“It is common sense to evaluate students on what they know rather than how long they spend in a classroom, but years of government regulation have created a system that places more value on credit hours than years of actual experience,” said Salmon. Veterans and other adult students should benefit, he predicted.

Giving colleges and universities more flexibility will “shorten the time it takes to earn a degree and reduce college costs,” said Polis.

The White House issued a statement supporting the bill.

“Competency” programs really are testing for “mastery,” writes John F. Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, in an Inside Higher Ed commentary. Graduate schools and employers want to know what candidates can do, not just what they know.

Talking about credentials for competence

Credentialing is complex and costly, concludes a new report,  Call for a National Conversation on Creating a Competency-based Credentialing Ecosystem.

Leaders of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), National Skills Coalition, New America Foundation, Workforce Data Quality Campaign and other groups endorsed the report, which calls for improving “transparency, trust and portability.”

Competency-Based Education (CBE) is increasing due to growing concerns about college costs and quality, according to a paper from the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. While some colleges are embedding CBE in the traditional curriculum, others are redesigning the curriculum around competencies; or redesigning the credentialing process around CBE, using direct assessment.

How to compete with for-profit colleges

Community colleges should look at “what makes for-profits successful” in order to compete for students, writes Matt Reed, who worked in the for-profit sector before going to a community college.

To start with, for-profit colleges make it easy to apply.

As Tressie McMillan Cottom has pointed out, to a student who’s really up against it economically, a twenty thousand dollar student loan due years in the future might as well be monopoly money, but a fifty dollar application fee is a real barrier.  Admissions counselors in for-profits will go out of their way to track down transcripts, for example, to give expedited decisions on transfer credits, which tend to be generous. (They understand the concept of a “loss leader.”)

They provide concierge-level service in areas like financial aid and admissions.

When he worked at DeVry, the campus had 15 to 20 admissions staffers for 4,000 students.  When he went to a community college, it had double the enrollment, with less than half the admissions staff.

For-profit colleges advertise specific programs, while community colleges tend to focus on the “overall brand.” The student has to figure out if a given community college trains HVAC techs or not.

For-profit colleges do little or no remediation before letting students start a program. They work to keep students in the program. “It’s much cheaper to retain a customer than to attract a new one.”

Community colleges also can learn from Southern New Hampshire University’s non-profit College for America, which will now offer bachelor’s degrees, Reed writes. College for America works with large employers to become the in-house higher education option for their workers.  “It has a narrow range of majors, a low upfront cost, a built-in support system, and regional accreditation.” Using a competency model keeps costs down.

Network aims to close ‘skills gap’

To close the job skills gap, the National Network of Business and Industry Associations is working to set national standards for industry-approved job credentials, make education and job training more effective and efficient, expand work-based learning, encourage employers to “hire for competency” and create more pathways to good jobs.

Employers want to “improve the quality of credentials used for hiring and promotion,” writes Mary Alice McCarthy on EdCentral.  

The focus reflects growing and widespread frustration with the opacity of existing educational credentials, particularly academic degrees, which tell employers relatively little about what a graduate can actually do. It is also a response to the proliferation of non-degree credentials over the past decade, such as certifications, certificates, and badges, and the difficulty employers (and job seekers) confront in evaluating the value of these new credentials. Many of them are only as good as the paper they are printed on. But others, particularly industry-accredited, standards-based certifications and competency-based certificates with third-party assessments, do a great job reliably validating the skills and competencies employers need.  

. . . If the Network can build trust in, and widespread adoption of, industry-wide credentials among their members, it can serve as an essential foundation from which to drive change in educational programs and improve labor market outcomes.

Credential confusion makes it hard for employers to find talent and difficult for students to make good college and career choices, concludes McCarthy.

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.

Texas creates 3-year ‘affordable’ bachelor’s

three-year bachelor’s of applied science degree will cost $13,000 to $15,000 for Texas students, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. The competency-based degree was developed by South Texas College and Texas A&M University at Commerce under the aegis of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Students will mix online and face-to-face learning.

The degree emphasizes organizational leadership, the board said, adding that the program “will culminate with a digital-capstone experience where students will apply their knowledge and skills to real-world business problems.”

The coordinating board said that the new offering was “a faculty-driven initiative, developed by community-college and university faculty,” but “we also listened to what national and regional employers are saying they really want: graduates with critical-thinking skills who are quantitatively literate, can evaluate knowledge sources, understand diversity, and benefit from a strong liberal-arts and sciences background.”

Shirley A. Reed, South Texas College’s president, said in a statement that the new degree “is a transition from colleges measuring student competencies based on time in a seat to now allowing students to demonstrate competencies they have acquired in previous employment, life experiences, or personal talents.”

Two years ago, Gov. Rick Perry called on the state’s colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees that would cost students no more than $10,000 each, notes the ChronicleUT-Permian Basin offers a $10,000 bachelor of science four-year degree, while UT-Arlington and UT-Brownsville offer similar programs, developed through partnerships with community colleges and school districts.

The Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Program is supported by the College for All Texans Foundation and by a two-year, $1-million grant from Educause and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Online instruction will upend the economics of higher education, according to The Economist.

What do students learn in college?

Massachusetts is leading a nine-state effort to measure what students learn in college, writes Marcella Bombardieri in the Boston Globe.

The plan is to compare students’ work, including term papers and lab reports, rather than using a standardized test.

“There is tremendous interest in this nationally, because everybody in higher education knows, if this doesn’t work, the next answer is a standardized test probably imposed by the federal government or by states,” Commissioner Richard M. Freeland said at a state Board of Higher Education meeting . . .

The Association of American Colleges and Universities is overseeing the project, which recently received $1 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Some professors are worried that campuses or instructors may be punished for poor results when they are doing their best to help students who arrived on campus underprepared, Paul F. Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and a higher education board member, told the Globe“I think there’s just a concern that they’re going to be held accountable for things beyond their control,” he said.

Before reaching out to other states, Massachusetts conducted a pilot project last spring. Seven campuses — including several community colleges, Framingham and Salem state universities, and the University of Massachusetts Lowell — gathered about 350 samples of assignments students who were nearing graduation had completed for classes.

Then a group of 22 professors spent three days over spring break at Framingham State evaluating the work for what it showed about each student’s abilities in written communication, quantitative literacy, or critical thinking, said Bonnie Orcutt, director of learning outcomes assessment for the Department of Higher Education.

Massachusetts is working with Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island and Utah to expand the experiment. 

Certification raises earnings

More than 50 million U.S. adults, or one in four, have earned a professional certification, license or educational certificate, according to a new Census report on alternative credentials. For workers with less than a bachelor’s degrees, certificates and licenses provide an “earnings premium.”
Alternative Education Credentials
“Getting an academic degree is not the only way for people to develop skills that pay off in the labor market,” said Stephanie Ewert,co-author of the report.

Certifications and licenses are valuable in many fields, including business/finance management, nursing, education, cosmetology and culinary arts.

Around 30 percent of employed adults held an alternative credential, compared to 16 percent of the unemployed and 13 percent of those not in the labor force.

Seventy-one percent of workers in technical fields hold an alternative credential, the report found.

Certifications that “signal specific competencies” make it easier for jobseekers and employers to find each other,  writes Mary Alice McCarthy on Ed Central. “Signals at the lower end of the job market . . . are relatively scarce.”

For people who don’t have the time, disposition, or financial means to complete a college degree, the positive economic return to alternative credentials is welcome news.  For education and training providers worried about improving the labor market outcomes of their students, the report points to the value of embedding stackable and competency-based credentials into their programs.  

And for the research and advocacy community, the results raise a host of new and important questions about how credentials function at different tiers of the labor market, how we ensure their quality, protect credential-seekers from worthless credentials, and use non-degree credentials to improve job quality. 

The U.S. workforce would look a lot better in international comparisons if certificate holders without college degrees were counted as trained workers, McCarthy adds.

Top 10 higher ed stories of 2013

The rise of MOOCS lead Ed Central’s Top Ten Higher Ed Stories of 2013. “The massive open online courses have huge potential to bring learning to more people, and to do it cheaper.”

Also on the list is U.S. Department of Education approval for Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, “the first school to award federal aid based on direct assessment of students’ learning.”

President Obama sent higher education stakeholders into a tizzy with his August announcement that the administration would implement a wide-ranging plan to get college costs under control. The centerpiece of the plan would rate colleges on a variety of metrics, and with Congressional approval, tie the ratings to financial aid eligibility.

Congress lowered interest rates on federal student loans and tied the rates to the market.

“Merit aid madness” benefits the wealthiest students.

(Colleges) “increasingly using their institutional financial aid as a competitive tool to reel in the top students, as well as the most affluent, to help them climb up the U.S. News & World Report rankings and maximize their revenue.

Other top stories are questions about the fairness of income-baseded repayment, policy changes for Parent PLUS loans, the rewrite of gainful employment regulations, data transparency and a OECD report “identifying one in six Americans as lacking basic skills necessary for the workforce.”

Ed Central proposes a college scoreboard design.