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.

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.

New America: Go big to increase access

The Next Generation University needs to go big to increase access, argues a New America Foundation report.

Next-gen universities will forge strong partnerships with community colleges to help students transfer and earn degrees. For example, the University of Central Florida and Valencia College share facilities, allowing students to finish a bachelor’s degree on the community college campus.

The report also calls for targeting financial aid to the neediest students and adopting performance-based funding that provides incentives to recruit transfer students, reduce time-to-degree, and graduate more low-income students. State policies such as “clearly articulated statewide general education requirements, common state-wide course numbers, and major prerequisites can smooth the path for transfer students,” the report suggests.

We need fewer small, expensive colleges and more big universities, argues Jeff Selingo, one of the authors, on The Quick and the Ed.

Online completion gap is narrowing

The completion gap between online and traditional courses is narrowing, reports a Instructional Technology Council survey on Trends in eLearning at community colleges.  Nearly half of colleges surveyed said online students are as successful as students in face-to-face courses, reports Fred Lokken, dean of the WebCollege at Truckee Meadows Community College.

Distance education enrollments at community colleges continue to grow, with a move to “blended” or “hybrid” courses. However, the rate of growth has slowed, concludes the survey, which was released at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges in San Francisco.

While community colleges are “exploring ways to use massive open online courses and open educational resources in their curriculums,” many distance education administrators remain “skeptical,” reports Scott Jaschik on Inside Higher Ed.

Both MOOCs and OERs have been promoted as ways to help cash-strapped community colleges educate more students, many of whom themselves are cash-strapped.

On MOOCs, the survey found that only 1 percent of community colleges are offering course credits or certificates for MOOC completion. While another 44 are “beginning to explore options” that might incorporate MOOC content into programs, 42 percent reported that they had no plans to do so.
“As would be expected with something so new, campuses are cautious in their approach. Many community colleges are skeptical that a large-enrollment solution is appropriate for campuses that believe in smaller, more personalized instruction,” says a report on the survey.

Only 36 percent believed open educational resources would have a “significant impact” at community colleges. Two-thirds of respondents said faculty members weren’t aware of OERs and lacked the time to locate and evaluate them. Many also worried about the credibility of some resources.

MOOC mockers don’t understand the potential of online learning, writes Geoff Cain, director of academic technology at Humboldt State, here and here.

State U Online, a new report by Education Sector and the New America Foundation, outlines five steps to implementing successful distance education programs.

Is it time to dump credit hours?

“Time-based units were never intended to be a measure of student learning,” writes Amy Laitenen of New America Foundation in The Curious Birth and Harmful Legacy of the Credit Hour.

“If credit hours truly reflected a standardized unit of learning,” students wouldn’t have so much trouble transferring credits from one college to another, she writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

. . .  colleges routinely reject credits earned at other colleges, underscoring their belief that credit hours are not a reliable measure of how much students have learned. If higher education doesn’t trust its own credits, why should anyone else?

. . . Without broader agreement about learning outcomes, credits and the value of degrees will remain opaque. Measuring time is easy, but measuring learning is hard. . .  . Those in higher education must roll up their sleeves and commit to the hard work of figuring out together what it is they expect students to know and how best to meaningfully assess what they have learned.

Some colleges are experimenting with the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile, which creates a framework for what students should know and be able to do, regardless of discipline. Lumina also has created Tuning, a process for faculty to “fine-‘tune’ their expectations and make them clear to students, other institutions, and employers,” writes Laitenen.

. . . federal policy can help catalyze such efforts by leveraging the government’s authority to use financial aid—a huge incentive for institutions—to pay for learning. Today the multibillion-dollar federal financial-aid system runs on the credit hour. And it gets only what it pays for: time.

Richard Schur, an associate professor of English at Drury University, likes the credit, he writes, also in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Education is a process, not a destination,” Schur writes. It’s “not reducible to a set of facts or skills.”

My paradigm for teaching comes from Socrates. What is interesting about Socrates is that he doubted his wisdom, so he interrogated those who claimed to possess competency, experience, and knowledge. What he frequently learned was that those who claimed to have the answers rarely did.  . . . the Socratic dialogue, imitates what should be happening in the classroom, with its give and take between student and teacher.

I know that the critics of the credit hour will point out how the example of Socrates illustrates precisely what is wrong with the existing model. First, Socrates did not have clear learning objectives for his students; his dialogues meander all over the place. Second, there was no outcome assessment, so we are not sure what, if anything, his interlocutors actually learned from these sessions. Third, this would be a very costly model to implement, especially with all the feasting and drinking. Fourth, this kind of education seems to privilege a life of luxury and wealth, which does not match the backgrounds of today’s students. Last but certainly not least, it is not clear that any of Socrates’ students ever got jobs, probably violating the “gainful employment” rule.

Time matters, argues Schur. It takes time “to have conversation, work on building student habits, develop relationships, and to try to make students into good citizens.”

Report: Give credit for learning, not time

It’s time to measure learning, not “seat time,” concludes a new report, Cracking the Credit Hour by the New America Foundation. The credit hour is outdated, argues Amy Laitinen.

Colleges often reject credits earned elsewhere, a huge waste of time and money for the 59 percent of students who attend two or more schools.

Seat time assumes a “traditional” student who lives and studies on campus, yet only 14 percent of undergraduates attend full time and live on campus. Meanwhile, more students are taking online courses that let them move at their own pace.

 While some students earn credits for little more than sitting in class, millions of professionals who have acquired college-level learning on the job have no way to get credit for their learning.

. . .  students who earn credit through programs that assess and award credit for things they already know are more likely to stay in and complete college than those who don’t.

The federal student aid program’s reliance on credit hours has stifled innovation, the report argues. Many “believe that their safest bet, if they want to keep access to federal financial aid, is to do what they have always done: use time to determine credits.”

The report recommends changes in federal policy, such as adopting Western Governors University’s competency-based model for awarding credits. This should “be the norm,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. In addition, the report urges federal experiments with learning-based financial aid, such as aid for credits earned using Prior Learning Assessments or outcomes-based financial aid. Finally, direct assessment of student learning is permitted under the Higher Education Act but has never been used, Laitinen notes.

“In an era when college degrees are simultaneously becoming more important and more expensive, students and taxpayers can no longer afford to pay for time and little or no evidence of learning,” the report concludes.

CCs train more pre-K teachers

Community colleges are expanding associate degree programs for pre-K teachers, reports Community College Week. Demand is very high, but pay remains low.

In Washington state, Edmonds Community College‘s early childhood education students can find jobs with a one-year certificate or an associate of technical arts degree. Some earn an associate of arts degree and transfer to a university to earn a bachelor’s in education.

. . . “We see a lot of people who have been working with children for 20 years, and they say it’s time for them to get a degree,” (Connie) Schatz said. “There is no question that employers are looking for a minimum of a credential or an associate degree. People who are looking to work in leadership positions really need a bachelor’s degree. The real challenge is to provide pathways. We need to have entry at all levels.”

In Pennsylvania, half of early childhood education students at Northampton Community College take classes online. Many are working mothers or live in rural areas. About half the students go on to a four-year college.

NCC has designed a pathway that lets students earn a certificate en route to an associate degree.

Only highly skilled teachers can help disadvantaged children catch up before they start school, say early-childhood education advocates.  Pre-kindergarten teachers should need a bachelor’s degree and a state license, just like K-12 teachers, concludes a New America Foundation Report issued last year.

Head Start now requires an associate degree for most teachers and a bachelor’s for lead teachers. By 2012, half of Head Start teachers will need a four-year degree.

As states struggle to balance budgets, it’s not likely preschools will get more funding to raise salaries for college-educated teachers.

What’s the for-profits’ future?

Reining In For-Profit Higher Education, a discussion of the proposed limits on student loans for high-cost for-profit colleges, is set for Friday, July 30 from 11 am to 12:30 p.m. at the New America Foundation, 1899 L St NW, Suite 400 in Washington, DC.

The foundation’s policy blog, Higher Ed Watch,  has invited: James Kvaal, deputy undersecretary of Education; Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, and Katherine Mangu-Ward, senior editor of Reason Magazine and Reason.com.

The new Education Department rules limit loan eligibility of for-profit colleges whose  graduates don’t earn enough to pay off their debts. Panelists will discuss the implications for the for-profit sector.

Click here to RSVP.

Can Tennessee show the way?

A Jobs Bill That Can Pass: Community College Reform is the title of a June 18 discussion sponsored by the New America Foundation and the Washington Monthly at 1899 L Street NW, Suite 400, Washington, D.C. from 9 to 10:30 am. Participants will focus on redesigning community colleges to provide better, faster job training for unemployed workers.

In Degrees of Speed, Jamie Merisotis of Lumina Foundation for Education and Stan Jones of Complete College America called for a federal plan to replicate Tennessee’s vocational colleges, which “combine the low-cost and public mission of community colleges with the job-focused curriculum of the best for-profits.”

In addition to Merisotis and Jones, panelists will include Carol Puryear, director of Tennessee Technology Center‘s Murfreesboro campus, and James Kvaal, a presidential adviser just named deputy undersecretary of Education. Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly and a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation will serve as moderator.