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.
A one-year certificate in diesel technology helped Julio Lopez secure a job as a lead fleet technician. Credit: Rob Vanya, San Jacinto College .
Half of teens have “little or no interest” in blue-collar jobs, according to a survey by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association (FMA). These are low-paying “dirty jobs,” high school students and their parents believe.
Because of the stigma, Houston is facing a shortage of welders, electricians, pipefitters, machinists, auto mechanics and manufacturing workers, say business leaders. UpSkill Houston is working with San Jacinto College to attract more young people to what are now called “middle-skill” jobs.
Julio Lopez earned a one-year certificate of technology from San Jacinto College’s diesel technology program. He started as a diesel tech at $18 an hour. After three years and a promotion, he now earns in the “mid- to upper-20s an hour” with the potential to move higher. He loves the work.
“I started as a kid, changing oil and worked my way up to eventually building engines,” he said. “To take something that will not run and disassemble it, repair it, and rebuild it brings a feeling of real accomplishment and pride.”
With a two-year degree in welding technology from San Jacinto College, Emily Choate earned $25 to $35 an hour as a welder and welding inspector. She now teaches welding at San Jacinto.
Welding is an art, said Choate. “It’s like painting, but my canvas is metal, my paint is a weld puddle, and my brush is an electrode. When I drop that hood and strike an arc, the whole world disappears, and it’s just me and that weld.”
Competency-based education isn’t an experiment at Bellevue College near Seattle, writes Paul Bradley on Community College Week. The college’s first CBE program — a business software specialist certificate program — has proven very popular.
“The students seem to love it,” said Tom Nielsen, the college’s vice president for instruction. “We are seeing that most students are going through their course sequences faster.”
Western Governors University, which pioneered CBE, is helping 11 community colleges develop their own CBE degree and certificate programs. The U.S. Department of Labor and the Gates Foundation are funding the initiative.
Competency-based education flips “the time-mastery relationship,” Sally M. Johnstone, vice president for academic advancement at WGU, wrote in Educause Review:
In a classroom-based model, all students start and end their learning experience at the same time. During a term of study, some students will master most of the materials and earn high grades; others will master less of the material and earn lower grades; and still others will master only about half the material and receive a failing grade. So, while these failing students know a considerable portion of the material, their only option is to take the entire class over again. This is discouraging to students, and some might well give up on the whole higher-education experience.
In CBE programs, students work toward mastery at their own pace, within the constraints of financial aid, institutional, and state policies. When students demonstrate mastery of the skills and knowledge designated by a course’s faculty, they pass the course. Students can progress through courses either sequentially or take several at a time, depending on their study habits and time constraints.”
Community colleges have “close links with employers,” says Thad Nodine, who’s following the project. “Austin Community College has over 100 employer partners.”
Adapting the WGU model isn’t easy, says Nielsen, the Bellevue College vice-president.
Under the CBE model, assessments determine whether a student has mastered a specific competency before moving on to the next one. But some states require that colleges issue a letter grade. Reconciling the two can be an arduous task.
Colleges also must carefully craft the CBE programs to ensure that competencies are valid and robust and that diverse students studying at their own pace receive strong academic support. Academic support needs to be flexible, Johnstone said. Learning resources must be available anytime. Assessments must be secure and reliable, based on the expertise of industry and academic subject-matter experts.
Four Washington state community colleges are working on CBE certificates, but next year the stakes will be raised. The state will launch an online, competency-based associate degree in business at 13 of the state’s 34 community and technical college. The degree program will include English composition, accounting, economics, business calculus, public speaking, political science, sociology and statistics. Fast-paced students will be able to complete the degree in 18 months.
The surge in competency-based degrees is challenging accreditors, who “must seek to ensure academic quality without quashing promising ideas,” reports Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed. Guidance from the federal government has been “sluggish and sometimes confusing,” said officials of three regional accrediting agencies, who spoke at a meeting organized by the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).
Competency-based education needs quality control to really take off, said Barbara Gellman-Danley, who became president of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools two months ago. That’s because the entrance of “bad actors” — low-quality programs that look like diploma mills — could trigger a backlash.
“Direct assessment” of students’ prior learning is especially challenging because “there are no courses, teaching professors or grades.”
Competency-based education works well for working adults, writes Julian L. Alssid, chief workforce strategist at College for America.
Germany’s job training model — a mix of vocational classwork and on-the-job apprenticeships — is catching on in the U.S., reports Jon Marcus for the Hechinger Report.
Students at Indiana’s Ivy Tech community colleges will be able to spend three days a week in class and two working — for pay — at companies such as Industrial Electric.
Ivy Tech plans to add programs in advanced automation and robotics, collaborating with employers who run assembly plants.
The Obama administration is promoting academic credit for apprenticeships.
However, funding apprenticeships is expensive. “In Germany, employers pay 75 percent of the $19,850 annual cost of each trainee, and the government covers the rest,” writes Marcus. Ivy Tech is trying to get employers to cover the cost for trainees they hire.
Only about 10 percent of American 18- to 22-year-olds get on-the-job training, the OECD reports.
High youth unemployment and a shortage of skilled workers is a problem in Europe too, except for Germany, reports The Economist.
When it comes to career advancement, skills training is more important than a college degree, say workers who responded to Glassdoor’s Q2 2014 Employment Confidence Survey.
“While education is still valued as one piece of the puzzle for a successful career, we’re seeing a shift in the workplace,” said Rusty Rueff, a Glassdoor career and workplace expert, reports eCampus News. “Most employees feel gaining the latest skills relevant to their job and industry is more valuable to help advance their careers.”
. . . when asked what’s most important to advance their career and earn a bigger paycheck, more than three in five (63 percent) employees report learning new skills or receiving special training, compared to those who report receiving a college or graduate degree (45 percent), transitioning careers or looking for a new job or company (38 percent), and networking with professionals (34 percent), among other options.
. . . three in four (74 percent) employees believe their employers value work experience and related skills more than education when evaluating job candidates.
Almost half of college graduates say their specific degree is not very relevant to the job they do today.
However, 56 percent say they’d be more successful in their career with a higher level of education.
“Going back to school may be one way to learn and improve, but there are also non-traditional ways, such as certificate programs, boot camps, webinars, online non-degreed courses, conferences and more,” said Rueff.
Community and technical colleges are seeing more “skill builders,” students who take one or two courses to build marketable job skills but have no interest in earning a degree.
By 2020 there will be a shortage of 875,000 machinists, welders, industrial-machinery mechanics and industrial engineers, according to a Boston Consulting Group report
Manufacturers are working with high schools and community colleges in hopes of closing the industrial skills gap, writes Katherine Peralta on U.S. News.
Unlike other teenagers’ summer jobs, Brett Fledderman’s begins at 6 o’clock in the morning, has him programming metal stamping equipment and pays $9 an hour, well above his home state Indiana’s $7.25 minimum. The 17-year-old is part of a new job training program in Batesville in which local businesses, the community college and the high school collaborate to ready a new field of talent for jobs in manufacturing.
“I learn a lot faster with hands-on work, so stuff like this really makes me learn a lot faster than I would in the classroom,” says Fledderman, who’s working this summer at Batesville Tool & Die, a 400-employee company that makes and supplies metal stamping components for the car, appliance and industrial sectors.
Nationwide, most machinists, welders and industrial maintenance workers are “50-something,” says Gardner Carrick, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Manufacturing Institute , a research arm of the National Association of Manufacturers. Companies need to build a pipeline of skilled workers to prepare for the coming “retirement crunch,” he says.
Most manufacturing areas have enough skilled workers now, but five cities – Miami, San Antonio, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Wichita, Kansas – have “significant or severe” skills gaps already.
In Indiana, machinists, tool and die makers, welders, cutters, solderers and brazers pay a median wage of at least $17, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
At Batesville High, 70 to 80 percent of students plan to go to a four-year college or university, says Jim Roberts, the school corporation’s superintendent. School administrators have had to “redirect to a more practical approach” in educating students about realistic job market prospects, he says.
Jody Fledderman, Batesville Tool & Die’s president and CEO and Brett’s uncle, says the program in his community is possible because of the cooperation between the high school, the community college – Ivy Tech – and area manufacturers, including Batesville Casket Co., Heartwood Manufacturing Inc. and Virtus Inc. Students in the co-op program, who enter as juniors, split their weeks between classes at the high school and Ivy Tech and on-the-job at one of the four businesses.
Fledderman hopes students will graduate one semester short of an associate degree. The company hires some four-year graduates, but primarily is looking for workers with a technical associate degree and industrial skills.
STEPHANIE RABELLO, REGISTERED NURSE | Working her way from practical nurse to registered nurse to bachelor-degree nurse. Preston Mack for The Wall Street Journal
There’s more than one route to the middle class, writes Tamar Jacoby in This Way Up in the Wall Street Journal. “Americans have a host of postsecondary options other than a four-year degree—associate degrees, occupational certificates, industry certifications, apprenticeships.”
What they need are “easy on-ramps, goal-oriented job training and a series of ascending steps, with industry-certified credentials to guide the way.”
In Orlando, Fla., there are many paths to the nursing profession, she writes.
The University of Central Florida trains only bachelor-degree nurses. You need an outstanding high-school record, there’s a long waiting list, and tuition is $14,000 for in-state students—and more than three times that if you’re not from Florida. Two well-equipped, award-winning community colleges—Seminole State and Valencia —offer associate-degree RN programs, where tuition is $7,500. Then there is Orlando Tech, a county-run career center, located in an old building in an industrial area near downtown, which trains licensed practical nurses for about $5,000.
RNs average $65,000 year, while LPNs start below $40,000. But there are ways to move up.
The streamlined route starts in high school: a “dual enrollment” magnet program that allows focused, able students to earn college credit and professional certifications, including as a nursing assistant. Participants who enroll within two years at Seminole or Valencia get advanced placement credit, saving as much as $1,250. And those who are really in a hurry can matriculate simultaneously at UCF, earning “concurrent” credit for advanced courses taken at community-college prices, then graduate in just three years with a UCF bachelor’s degree.
For many, it’s a long journey. Stephanie Rabello, 41, went from high school to a 10-month LPN program at a local career center. After nearly 20 years as a practical nurse, she enrolled in a yearlong LPN-to-RN “bridge” program at Seminole State. “Online classes and convenient clinical rotations” let her continue working while she studied, writes Jacoby. Now an RN, Rabello hopes to earn a bachelor’s in nursing at UCF.
Sherry Harris, 33, who followed a similar path from LPN to RN, calls it “step-by-step” professional training—the “working-class way in.” Ms. Harris is now taking the next step: an RN-to-BSN program for a bachelor of science degree in nursing.
Jacoby, president of Opportunity America, also looks at welding — which can pay as much as $100,000 a year — and franchise management.
Stop Feeding High-School Students the Myth That College is Right For Everyone, writes Karen Cates in Businessweek.
While unemployment among recent college grads is 8.5 percent, 46 percent of recent grads consider themselves “mal-employed” in low-level jobs that don’t require a degree, she writes.
Meanwhile, construction and other trades are seeking skilled workers. However, employers won’t hire just anyone.
With recent advances in materials and computer science, the work in construction and many other trades is getting more complex, requiring new cognitive skills in many cases. “We don’t consider our apprentice and training programs as just a good alternative for individuals who cannot or do not want to go to college,” says John Grau, CEO of the National Electrical Contractors Association. “Based on the sophistication of our trade and the high level of training it requires, a good number of our applicants enter our [training] program after earning a college degree.”
Yes, everyone should go to college, responds Libby Nelson on Vox. That includes going to community college to qualify for good blue-collar jobs.
Many people imagine a bright line between college and vocational education — Ph.Ds on one side, plumbers on the other. That line doesn’t exist, and it hasn’t for at least a generation. Particularly at two-year colleges, programs for future English majors and future auto mechanics often exist side-by-side. One path might lead to an associate degree, the other to a certificate, but they’re both at a place called “college.”
As higher education economist Sandy Baum wrote in a report for the Urban Institute: “It is common to hear the suggestion that many students should forgo college and instead seek vocational training. But most of that training takes place in community colleges or for-profit postsecondary institutions.”
About 30 percent of construction workers and 20 percent of industrial workers have earned a vocational license or credential, according to the Census. They earn more than workers without a credential but less than those with a degree. Eighty-two percent of workers with vocational credentials earned them at a college, Nelson writes.
In other words, the vocational path to the middle class usually runs through a community college job training program. And those with weak reading, writing and math skills will have trouble succeeding in job training or persuading an employer they’re good candidates for on-the-job training.
Indiana is debating free tuition for community college students, reports the Indianapolis Star.
Nearby Tennessee has promised a free community college education in hopes of improving job skills.
“Think how we’d change the state,” said Jeff Terp, Ivy Tech Community College chief operating officer. “We’d have one of the most educated workforces in the country.”
However, Teresa Lubbers, state commissioner for higher education, fears eliminating tuition would do little for low-income students, who already are eligible for state and federal aid. Many attend IvyTech for free and have grant money left over to pay for books and expenses, she said.
Most of the benefits of free tuition would flow to students whose families can afford to pay community college tuition, Lubbers said.
Free computer “boot camps” are helping older learners in the Plus 50 Encore Completion program, reports Community College Daily. Teaching computer skills eases the transition to college and recruits students into workforce training programs focused on health care, education or social service fields.
San Jacinto College (SJC) in Texas calls its computer center Never2Late, or N2L. It provides flexible hours, tutors and a certification of completion.
“When I came back this time, I was so nervous because every classroom had computers in them,” said Randy, 52. “I’d been in the workforce so long but needed the computer skills, so I knew I had to face this fear.” Counselor Leander Nash walked him down to N2L, he said.
South Arkansas Community College provides an eight-hour basic computer course that is open to all students and free to those over age 50.
In California, El Camino College’s free computer basics boot camp is for adults age 50 and over who have enrolled in Plus 50’s two health care programs, pharmacy technician and medical coding and billing.