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.
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.
Illinois community college leaders tried to add four-year degrees eight years ago, reports The Southern. Now they’re trying again, arguing that offering four-year degrees at two-year colleges will enhance access and affordability.
“We spend time, money and effort recruiting and retaining students and then we ignore how they can best contribute to their local community’s economy and quality of life,” Breuder wrote in a March 26 letter published by the Chicago Tribune.
“We shouldn’t lose them because we couldn’t offer the baccalaureate degree in a field that no public university cares to offer despite a documented need within the districts the community colleges serve.”
Nursing, construction management, electronics and healthcare administration would be possibilities at John A. Logan College, says President Mike Dreith said. But he doesn’t want to endanger the college’s “extremely sensitive” relationship with nearby Southern Illinois University, which strongly opposed a baccalaureate option at community colleges eight years ago.
It’s time to let community colleges offer four-year degrees in technical fields, writes Jim Nowlan, a retired senior fellow with the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs, in the News-Gazette.
A full-time community college student pays about $3,500 a year in tuition and usually lives at home, he notes. A state university student pays $10,000 to $14,000 — before room and board fees.
College of DuPage enrolls 28,000 students — more than any campus in the state other than the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Students take courses in 90 certificate programs and 59 associate degree occupations.
Breuder wants to take advantage of COD’s strong position to offer low-cost, four-year degrees in fields like information technology, public safety management, advanced manufacturing, auto technology management and, especially, nursing.
Twenty-two states have approved four-year degrees at community colleges, writes Nowlan. Illinois should too.
The trucking industry needs to hire 95,000 new truckers every year, but training programs turn out only 75,000 and half the job applicants are ineligible due to recent drunk driving convictions. A startup called WorkAmerica is trying to fill the gap: The company vets would-be truckers and places them in community college training programs — with a guaranteed job offer.
“No student should enroll in a vocational job program without having a job guarantee,” said Collin Gutman, WorkAmerica’s CEO and co-founder. “We get jobs for people before they start a college class.”
“A growing number of startups want to play the matchmaker role between community colleges and employers,” reports Inside Higher Ed.
WorkAmerica plans to forge partnerships with community colleges and expand into high-churn fields such as welding, medical assistants, and IT and HVAC technicians.
Employers pay the company to screen prospective hires. If they meet the company’s requirements, they get a job offer good if the applicant completes the academic program in good standing. Community colleges, which pay nothing, “get a pipeline of students without having to spend on marketing,” reports Inside Higher Ed.
Maryland’s Hagerstown Community College is considering a partnership with WorkAmerica for the college’s eight-week trucking program. The company is talking to Anne Arundel Community College , also in Maryland, about pilot programs in several fields beyond trucking, Gutman said.
Another company, Workforce IO, has created a technology platform to link employers with job trainers such as community colleges, nonprofit organizations, mentors or bosses.
Workforce IO hinges on being able to vouch for the reliability of entry-level job candidates. It does that by having created a “library of skills” in various fields and offering digital badges for those skills, said Elena Valentine, a co-founder of the company.
Workforce IO has collaborated with Grand Rapids Community College, in Michigan, as well as an Illinois campus of Everest College, a for-profit institution.
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.”
Apprenticeships are hot, but not all lead to middle-class jobs, writes Mark Schneider on The Quick and the Ed.
Last month, President Obama announced a $100 million fund to support apprenticeship programs in fields such as information technology, health care and advanced manufacturing. For all the praise of apprenticeships, the number enrolled is much lower than 10 years ago. Completions are down from 52,000 in 2002 to 44,000 today.
The White House says that 87 percent of apprentices find jobs that average more than $50,000 a year in pay. This is an exaggeration, according to Florida data. The median wage is $37,252 for registered apprentices, who typically study at a community or technical college.
Graduates with an associate degree in science earn the most, with the associate in applied science coming second and apprentices a close third. Graduates with a bachelor’s degree start at only $33,652.
Starting wages are much higher for apprentices in jobs that “keep things working” than for those in cooking and early childhood education. Elevator construction mechanics start at $67,565.
“The best training is on-the-job training,” says Linda Poage, program manager at the Apprenticeship and Journeyman Training Center at Spokane Community College. Community College Daily looks at existing college-linked apprenticeship programs and plans for expansion with new federal dollars.
Giving college credit for apprenticeships will boost graduation rates and develop skilled workers, said Vice President Joe Biden at the American Association of Community Colleges’ annual convention. He announced the Registered Apprenticeship College Consortium, which includes community colleges, businesses, labor unions and industry organizations.
The Obama administration hopes to “scale up to the national level the thousands of existing agreements between a single college and regional employer or union to provide credit for apprenticeships,” reports Inside Higher Ed.
The American Council on Education and the National College Credit Recommendation Service already evaluate apprenticeship experience and “make recommendations about how the apprenticeship experience translates into the traditional academic unit of credit hours.”
Consortium members will promise to accept those recommendations.
The Departments of Education and Labor will run the voluntary consortium.
Biden proposed expanding the apprenticeship model to fields such as allied health and information technology, says Matt Reed, who attended the speech. It’s not clear how this would work.
In allied health fields, students already can “move up the ranks through well-designed stackable programs,” earning as they learn. At his college, Holyoke, the Foundations of Health program is “conspicuously successful.”
But I honestly don’t see how the apprenticeship model would work in IT. Apprenticeships work well when the craft takes time to learn, the roles are well-defined, and the field is structurally stable. Pipefitting is like that; moving water from here to there is still essentially the same process it was a generation ago. Apprenticeships also generally happen in unionized industries. Construction tends to be heavily unionized, so it lends itself well.
IT doesn’t fit either bill. The content of the field changes rapidly, and its structure is in constant flux. It’s relatively indifferent to credentials — in part because the field is in such flux — and it’s not exactly a hotbed of unionization. IT has adopted the internship model much more than the apprenticeship model, both because interns are cheaper and because the industry doesn’t rely on clearly defined roles. The field is rife with startups, which are notoriously averse to the kind of rankings that apprenticeships presume.
Another question: Do industry-trained apprentices need college degrees?
Detroit is losing jobs and people. The city is bankrupt. Hopes for an economic rebound center on job training provided by the Wayne County Community College District (WCCCD, reports Community College Daily.
“When economic times get tough, community colleges do much more because we have to,” said Shawna Forbes, vice chancellor for WCCCD’s School of Continuing Education and Workforce Development.
Many manufacturing companies want employees with associate degrees. WCCCD worked with Detroit Employment Solutions Corp. (DESC) to select 100 people for a 19-week program that combines job training with internships at local companies. “We’re looking at quickly moving people along a career pathway,” said WCCCD Vice Chancellor George Swan. “People are not going to get a certificate and that’s it.”
WCCCD is “incredibly important in job growth,” and the planning and implementation of the strategic plan is clearly informed by the role the college can play, said Dan Kinkead, director of Detroit Future City.
The district is stepping up job training in growth areas such as advanced manufacturing, information technology and health data management.
A new science center specializes in training surgical technicians (pictured), dental assistants, phlebotomy technicians and nurses. The center also offers health exams to community residents.
Last year, WCCCD created a fast-track “IT boot camp” to train people for jobs with Infosys, Compuware, Quicken and other companies. “The program focused on people who worked in office automation or technology in the automobile industry and had been displaced or had worked with older computer systems and now need to upgrade their skills,” reports Community College Daily.
The college will open a center this winter for cybersecurity training.
Right Skills Now, launched last year, enables students to earn certifications in metalworking, then go on to train on advanced manufacturing equipment. Employers provide advice and work experience.
. . . the college is also gearing up for training people to work on a new light rail line that will link downtown Detroit to Pontiac, Mich. Construction on the highly automated, computer-based system is expected to start this spring, and there will be jobs for people trained in electromechanical systems, as well as signaling and communications systems.
New bus and shuttle systems will be linked with the light rail line, and a new high-speed rapid bus system, running in dedicated lanes, will link Detroit to Jackson, Mich. Two cohorts of 30 students each are in a WCCCD program on the operation and maintenance of these systems.
Detroit has seen growth in recent years in manufacturing, logistics and food and beverage processing. Quicken Loans moved to downtown Detroit in 2010. But the city lacks a skilled workforce. Twenty percent of residents haven’t completed high school.
Texas community colleges are creating stackable credentials for oilfield workers, reports Inside Higher Ed. Oil and gas workers can qualify for an entry-level job, then return to college for more training.
Community colleges are working hard to keep up with petrochemical companies’ demand for workers. The jobs pay well, and many associate degree-holders earn $50,000 to $70,000 a year right out of college.
Students can start at one college, move to follow the jobs and enroll at a new college without losing credits.
Several community colleges have teamed up to create a central core of 36 credits toward a 60-credit associate degree aimed at oil and gas workers. Those courses, which include 15 credits’ worth of accreditor-mandated general education requirements and 21 credits of specialized soft and mechanical skills training, are designed to transfer around the state.
Each credential “stacks” on the one before. “Courses for shorter-term certificates count toward degrees,” notes Inside Higher Ed.
A “marketable skills achievement award,” which takes 9 to 14 credits, leads to an entry-level job.
Next up is a “level one” certificate, which usually takes a year to complete. For example, a basic certificate in process technology at Brazosport is 15 credits. Others can be more involved, with 18 or more credits.
Level two certificates follow. They tend to be somewhat-specialized 30-credit programs. Eventually students can wrap up 60-credit associate degrees in production or processing technology.
That’s not even the last step. Some community colleges have partnered with four-year institutions to create transitions to bachelor’s programs for oil and gas workers. Brazosport, for example, has a transfer agreement with the nearby University of Houston at Victoria for a bachelor’s in applied technology.
Large employers, such as Chevron and Dow Chemical, require an associate degree for new hires. But they’ll hire interns who are working on a degree for as much as $22 an hour.
Texas colleges plan to create stackable credentials for other fields, such as allied health careers and information technology.
North Carolina’s community colleges have created a “green jobs” pathway.
Underemployed four-year graduates are enrolling in community colleges to learn job skills, reports the Chicago Tribune.
In 2010, Jessica Underwood graduated from Carthage College in Wisconsin “with a stellar academic record, a can-do attitude and a newly minted business degree.” Her bachelor’s degree was “just like a ticket to nowhere,” Underwood told the Trib. Despite sending as many as 10 job applications a day, she found only low-wage, low-skilled office, retail and telemarketing jobs.
Three years after graduation, Underwood decided that she needed to reboot — and fast. At the College of DuPage, she enrolled in the paralegal certification program, which offered a robust hiring outlook, but also the chance to reinvent herself in only 18 months.
She owes $60,000 in student loans for her business degree.
Illinois community colleges are touting accelerated programs to help the underemployed get a fresh start.
At Prairie State College, the “Career in a Year” campaign boosted enrollment by 50 percent in programs training home inspectors and dialysis and pharmacy technicians.
Harper College‘s launch of a “fast track” advanced manufacturing program — certification in one semester, followed by a paid internship with a partner company — attracted a standing-room-only crowd.
More than ever, companies want people adept at communicating, critical thinking and problem solving — all hallmarks of a liberal arts education. Studies continue to show that people with a four-year degree earn more, on average, over the course of their lifetime than those without college degrees. But employers say there’s often a mismatch between what traditional colleges are producing and what they need.
“Middle-skills” jobs, which require a certificate or associate degree, can qualify graduates for middle-class paychecks. Demand is high in health care fields, information technology and manufacturing, reports the Tribune.
Retraining adults for high-demand jobs and improving graduation rates are the priorities for Iowa community colleges, reports the Gazette. Half the students who enrolled in 2009-10 earned a credential or transferred within three years. Colleges are trying to improve that number.
Des Moines Area Community College is among the schools that now requires an orientation course for all students, said Jeremy Varner, administrator of the community colleges division with the Iowa Department of Education. Other colleges are putting resources into more advising and early-warning programs for when students begin to struggle, he said.
“Getting more through to graduation — that’s where a lot of that focus is,” Varner said.
Kirkwood Community College hopes its math “emporium” will improve retention, ’said Math and Science Dean Lori Woeste.
Students work in a computer lab where an instructor is always on hand for one-on-one discussion, and the students work at their own pace. . . . students signs up for the Prep for College Math course, where they demonstrate competency in the “modules” they are confident about and then focus their time on the areas where they need work, Woeste said.
College officials hope state funding will improve next year, easing the tuition burden on students and funding job training. Iowa is focusing on training workers for jobs in nursing, information technology and advanced manufacturing.