Getting competency right

Competency-based education is super-hot — but nobody’s quite sure what it means, reports Inside Higher Ed. A new Lumina-funded group, the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) will discuss how to do competency ed right.

“There’s really a danger of people just repackaging what they’re doing and calling it competency-based education because it’s the buzzword du jour,” said Amy Laitinen, a former Education Department and White House official who is deputy director of the New America Foundation’s higher education program.

Competency-based education assesses learning outcomes, regardless of whether the student learned in class, online, on the job, through experience or by reading books.

Decades ago pioneering institutions like Alverno College, Excelsior College, Thomas Edison State College and others with a focus on adult students began assessing competencies and issuing college credit for experiential learning. As with Advanced Placement tests, students could pass assessments and earn credit for knowledge and skills they gained outside the traditional classroom.

Western Governors offers a twist on this model. Created in 1997, the online university added the element of self-paced instruction. Students at Western Governors can work through automated, asynchronous online course material at their own speed. And the university’s instructors act more like tutors than professors in a lecture hall.

A third style first hit the scene this year. This approach, which is called “direct assessment,” drops the credit-hour standard and completely severs the link between competencies and the amount of time students spend mastering them.

Earlier this year the federal government and regional accreditors approved direct assessment offerings from College for America, a subsidiary of Southern New Hampshire, and Capella University. Northern Arizona University, the University of Wisconsin system and Brandman University are developing direct-assessment programs.

Competency-based education would give students more choices, cut college costs and help them find jobs, writes Jesse Saffron.

Obama plan needs reality check

President Obama’s plan to link financial aid to college “value” could use a reality check, write Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, and Michael McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation, in a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary.

If his plan goes into effect — which isn’t likely, they believe — “student aid would become much more complicated” and less predictable, which is a barrier to lower-income students.

While the federal government provides about $136 billion in grants and loans to undergraduate students, “state governments are primarily responsible for establishing, supporting, and managing colleges and universities,” Baum and McPherson write. Federal dollars go primarily to students.

Providing simple and meaningful information to students is a good idea. But the reality is that it’s not easy to measure postsecondary outcomes. What students learn is not on the list, probably because of the measurement challenges. But surely it is at or near the top of the list of what we should care about. We want people to get good jobs when they finish school, but do we really want to suggest that maximizing earnings should be the primary goal? Should we value colleges that educate investment bankers more than we value colleges that educate teachers and social workers? Did the president waste his expensive Ivy League education when he went to work as a community organizer instead of heading to Wall Street?

Open-access colleges that enroll many low-income students won’t have the same graduation rates or debt levels as elite colleges with affluent students, they point out. Comparing “similar” institutions isn’t easy.

Furthermore, “the penalty for a college that charges its students too much is to take away some of those students’ Pell Grant dollars, making the unfortunate students who enroll there still worse off,” Baum and McPherson write.

 Perhaps the idea behind the proposal is that students will vote with their feet. They will avoid colleges that charge too much or don’t have high enough graduation rates. In reality, students don’t have that much flexibility. If a low-income student lives in a state with a poorly run public system, she’s stuck, unable to afford out-of-state tuition or private alternatives. Cutting her Pell Grant just doesn’t help.

The president also wants to expand income-based repayment of student loans, which Baum and McPherson support, if loopholes are closed.

Federal subsidies for “cost-cutting innovation,” is fine in theory, they write, but we don’t know if MOOCs will “help students—particularly at-risk students—learn more while paying less.” It’s also not clear whether “competency-based degrees . . .  will increase meaningful educational opportunities or just let us count more people as having college degrees.”

Four key ideas in President Obama’s proposal have been championed by major foundations and policy analysts, including the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation and the New America Foundation, notes the Chronicle.

Gates puts $472 million into completion agenda

The Gates Foundation has spent $472 million on higher education since 2006, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education special report. Some $343-million was spent after January 2008, when the foundation announced it would focus on helping low-income young people complete college credentials. The Lumina Foundation, the largest private foundation devoted solely to higher education, “spent a little more than half that amount over the same period” on a similar completion agenda.

Gates’s rise occurs as an unusual consensus has formed among the Obama White House, other private foundations, state lawmakers, and a range of policy advocates, all of whom have coalesced around the goal of graduating more students, more quickly, and at a lower cost, with little discussion of the alternatives. Gates hasn’t just jumped on the bandwagon; it has worked to build that bandwagon . . .

Gates-funded research has spurred state lawmakers to limit remediation and link higher ed funding to graduation rates and other success measures, reports the Chronicle.

“Working alongside the Lumina Foundation through intermediaries like Complete College America and another nonprofit, Jobs for the Future, the Gates Foundation has helped influence higher-education policy at the state level to a degree that may be unprecedented for a private foundation.”

Complete College America has persuaded 32 states, plus the District of Columbia, to join an alliance dedicated to improving college completion rates.

Critics say Gates and its allies push too hard for completion at the expense of educational quality.

“You create this whole hyped-up, get-it-done-fast mentality,” says Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Remediation reforms, such as pushing students quickly into credit-bearing courses, are creating pushback.

Lydia Jandreau, a 44-year-old massage therapist, needed two semesters of remedial math to prepare for a nursing program at Gateway Community College, in Connecticut. Starting next year, Gateway will be allowed to offer only a single semester.

With one semester, “I could have muddled by with a C and gotten the basic concepts,” Ms. Jandreau says. “But the way I look at it, I’m building my academic house, and I want it to have a solid foundation.”

A Connecticut legislator sponsored the law limiting remedial courses after attending a Complete College America “remediation institute,” notes the Chronicle.

Only a quarter of community college students who start in remedial courses earn a certificate or associate degree within eight years, says Stan Jones, president of Complete College America.

Saverio Perugini, a professor and academic coordinator of the math department at Gateway, says Connecticut’s new law will “put the kibosh” on his department’s own efforts to streamline remediation.

While he understands the frustration in seeing so few students who start out in remedial education succeed, limiting them to a single semester of remediation isn’t likely to work for students who are too far behind, he worries. “How do you add polynomials if you can’t add basic numbers?” he asks. “It’s like taking a Little Leaguer and putting him straight into the majors.”

Many remediation experts agree. Patti Levine-Brown, president of the National Association for Developmental Education, says the push to eliminate most free-standing developmental-education courses ignores academic research showing that poor and minority students will be disproportionately hurt if they’re placed in college courses before they’re ready.

Influenced by Complete College’s research, Tennessee now allows remedial coursework in community colleges, but not state universities. Florida lets students decide if they’ll take remedial courses.

Complete College America also encourages states to link a portion of state higher education funding to colleges’ graduation rates.

Lumina: 38.7% of adults are college grads

College attainment is increasing, slowly but steadily, reports the Lumina Foundation. As of 2011, 38.7 percent of working-age Americans had earned a two- or four-year college degree and another 5 percent of adults held a “postsecondary certificate with significant economic value.”

Young adults (ages 25-34) do slightly better: 40.1 percent have earned an associate or bachelor’s degree.

Lumina’s Goal 2025 — 60 percent of adults with a high-value certificate or degree — will require faster progress, the report states.

Higher education pays off, even in a tough economy, Lumina argues.

Between the beginning of the recession in December 2007 and its official end in January 2010, the economy lost 5.6 million jobs for Americans with a high school education or less. Jobs requiring an associate degree or some college declined by 1.75 million, while the number of jobs for Americans with a bachelor’s degree or above actually grew by 187,000.

. . . Since the end of the recession, jobs requiring an associate degree or some college have grown by 1.6 million and almost recovered to pre-recession levels. Jobs for bachelor’s degree holders actually have accelerated their growth — adding 2 million new jobs during the recovery.

Jobs for workers with only a high school diploma continue to decline.

Recent college graduates are far more likely to be employed than high school graduates: 88 percent of 23- and 24-year-old college graduates have jobs compared to 65 percent of less-educated workers the same age.  ”The wage premium — the gap between what employers are willing to pay for graduates vs. those who don’t have a postsecondary credential — is actually growing, and has continued to grow throughout the recession and its aftermath.”

Ivy Tech may close campuses

Ivy Tech, Indiana’s rapidly growing statewide community college system, is considered “a national model for statewide efficiency and received praise for close ties to employers,” reports Inside Higher Ed. But Ivy Tech faces a $68 million funding gap and may have to close up to 20 of its 76 campuses.

“We’ve done all the painless things we can do,” said Thomas J. Snyder, Ivy Tech’s president. A former corporate executive, “he has helped lead substantial cost-saving efforts” and joined national discussions on college costs and productivity.

Ivy Tech’s requested level of state support has long been $3,500 per student (the total cost of education per student is $4,665). Yet the state’s current contribution is $2,543, which is up from a $2,198 the previous year. Even before the recession, state funding did not reach Ivy Tech’s target levels.

In addition, the college receives little money from the state for its facilities. The system built or expanded 17 campuses without state support. And only 23 campuses receive capital funding, Snyder said.

Ivy Tech’s strategic plan calls for increasing the number of adults with college credentials. Indiana ranked 40th in degree attainment according to the Lumina Foundation.

Ivy Tech claims it’s achieved $100 million in savings through shared services and outsourcing. The college system also has frozen salaries and eliminated one chancellor position. However, college officials say $70 million in deferred spending can’t be postponed forever. And it needs to hire faculty members and advisors.

Ivy Tech plans to raise tuition by $5 per credit hour, but the board of trustees also is considering closing campuses.

What do transfer students want?

What do transfer students want?  Matt Reed answers a question from a university staffer who wants to help transfers earn a four-year degree.

First, transfers want to get credit for their credits.

Nothing grinds a student’s gears more than being told she has to re-take a class she has already passed — and paid for — elsewhere.  Articulation agreements and transfer blocs are supposed to prevent that, and they help, but the devil is in the details.  Frequently a college will proclaim loudly that it takes all credits, but then relegate a bunch of them to “free elective” status.  “Free elective” status is where credits go to die.  Since very few four-year programs have many “free electives” in them, students wind up having to take (and pay for) far more than they should.

Transfers also want access to scholarships, Reed writes.

Many would appreciate support services to help them handle the transition.

Ten tips for transferring from community college include: Transfer with an associate degree, not just a handful of credits.

Lumina’s 2012 snapshot report shows much higher graduation rates for transfers with an associate degree.

Colleges collaborate on remedial ed

Colleges with many minority students are restructuring remedial education as part of Lumina Foundation’s Models of Success program, reports Rethinking Remedial Education. Minority-serving institutions are collaborating to improve instruction, revamping placement systems and improving student services.

California State University, Monterey Bay partnered with Cabrillo College and Hartnell College to create the Collaborative Alliance for Postsecondary Success (CAPS). CAPS has brought together about 10 faculty representatives from each campus to regularly exchange best practices and collectively develop innovative courses for students enrolled in remedial math and writing.

. . . Montana’s Salish Kootenai College (SKC) partnered with fellow Tribal College and University, Fort Peck Community College, to . . . identify the factors that contribute to the retention and success of American Indian postsecondary students who required remedial coursework in mathematics and English.

The Lumina MSI-Models of Success program focuses on improving  first-generation students, low-income students and students of color.

Competency credentials ‘blow up’ the credit hour

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.

‘College for all’ spurs backlash

How many college-educated janitors do we need? It’s not clear that a college education is “an economic imperative,” as President Obama puts it, argues economist Walter Williams.

A good part of our higher education problem, explaining its spiraling cost, is that a large percentage of college students are incapable of doing real college work. They shouldn’t be wasting their own resources and those of their families and taxpayers.

We now have janitors, waiters and taxi drivers with college degrees, writes Williams, citing Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Meanwhile, colleges are lowering standards to create “comfortable environments for the educationally incompetent.”

The backlash against “college for all” is growing, writes Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed. Yet President Obama and other higher education advocates never wanted all students to enroll in liberal arts colleges to earn bachelor’s degrees, Fain points out.  Obama’s goal is at least one year of postsecondary education, which for many will mean job training that lasts a few months or a few years.

“College for all is a false premise. It’s not an argument anyone is making,” says Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation.

The completion push is really about “postsecondary education and training for all,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. But “that doesn’t fit on anybody’s bumper sticker.”

Vocational and technical education often gets short shrift during debates on college completion, says Mark Milliron, president of Western Governors University Texas, and a former official with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Instead of focusing on a “family of credentials that provide that earning and learning potential,” like certificate programs that cater to working adults, Milliron says the discussion gravitates toward bachelor’s degrees. And that conflation is a problem, because “it plays into anti-elitism.”

While earning a college degree has paid off in the past, Vedder warns it may not do so in the future, as less-capable students try college. “The law of diminishing returns is starting to rear its ugly head,” Vedder says.

Tuning for transfer

“Tuning” college courses will help students set a course for graduation and transfer credits from community colleges to four-year institutions, writes Michelle Kalina, director of the Institute for Evidence-Based Change‘s Tuning USA initiative.

Faculty at colleges in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas, and Utah are working to clarify what students should “know, understand, and accomplish” in specific courses.

Through tuning . . . students know what it takes to stay on track toward graduation and how to make choices that will make them more employable-an increasingly important concern given the rising cost of college. Students and their families have a better sense of what can be done with a degree, and employers understand what they can expect from new graduates they hire.

Texas’ higher education system has tuned four engineering disciplines and will add two additional engineering fields, two science majors, mathematics, business and computer and information science.

Because two-thirds of high school graduates in Texas who pursue higher education start at one of the state’s community colleges, Texas also convened representatives from more than 50 institutions to improve the transfer process. Community-college students who want to pursue a baccalaureate degree in civil engineering receive detailed guidance on choosing courses and applying to transfer. Students are informed about the knowledge and skills they will acquire in each course and are provided information about career opportunities ranging from construction and aerospace to manufacturing and public works projects.

In Kentucky, two- and four-year public and private colleges are tuning programs in biology, business, elementary education, nursing and social work.

History is next. The Lumina Foundation will work with the American Historical Association to determine what students should learn in history courses and be able to do when they complete a degree.