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.

Adults earn college credit for what they already know

Working adults will be able to earn college credit for what they already know, through the University of Wisconsin’s Flexible Option, reports NPR. Students will be able to earn a degree by proving they’ve mastered skills and knowledge.

Katie Hyland, a helicopter transport nurse at Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee, earned an associate degree in nursing five years ago. Now she needs a bachelor’s degree to keep her job. The hospital has given her three years to get it. She thinks she can finish in half the time through the nursing flex program.

UW faculty is designing ways to measure competencies, says Doris Schoneman, who helped create the nursing flex program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

MARGE PITROF: Faculty will also grade the assessments, and if the students pass, they’ll get the course credits. Schoneman says an advisor will guide each student, but the program does not include classmates or face time with instructors.

SCHONEMAN: The student needs to be self-directed and be able to set goals and to meet them. It’s not any easier; it’s just a different way.

In NPR’s comments, “Skepticmd” praised the flex program, but noted the report missed the real issue about Katie Hyland.

Specifically, what has changed about the job that it now requires a bachelor’s degree? Where is the proof that requiring current employees to expend time, opportunity costs and money on further baccalaureate studies will improve patient outcomes on the heliport landing? The new standard . . . creates a barrier to employment for otherwise competent and qualified individuals.

Will the helicopter nurse do her job any better once she earns a four-year degree? It seems unlikely, writes Skepticmd.

I think that’s a very good point.

Colleges accelerate and ‘stack’ job training

With the help of Labor Department grants, community colleges are accelerating job training programs aimed at adults and “stacking” workforce credentials, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Working with employers, Massachusetts’ 15 community colleges have accelerated training for jobs in health care, advanced manufacturing, information technology, biotechnology, green energy and financial services.

In addition to prior-learning assessment and competency-based education, colleges are creating stackable credentials. Students can earn a short-term certificate, find a job and return later to add a higher credential.

For advanced manufacturing, the final product was a pyramid of competencies employees should ideally master to work at various job levels. The colleges worked with manufacturers statewide to develop those standards.

For example, in the precision machining field, entry-level jobs like assemblers or warehouse workers should have skills in five major areas: shop math, blueprint reading, metrology, problem solving and workplace readiness. But further up the pyramid, supervisors and managers should hold certificates and degrees in manufacturing technology, as well as more learned skills, such as programming, and a minimum number of hours working in the industry.

Stacking also works well for health-care credentials, said Ana Sanchez, the “career and college navigator”  at Springfield Technical Community College. “Everybody wants to be a nurse,” but not everyone has the math and science skills needed. In one or two semesters, students can earn a certificate as a patient care technician or medical admin. It can be a quick route to the workforce and, for some, the first step on the path to a nursing degree.

To understand vets, educators try Marine boot camp

To understand military veterans turned students, run a mile in their boots. New Jersey community college officials and high school teachers, counselors and principals volunteered for a week of Marine training, reports Community College Times.

​Last year, Warren County Community College (WCCC) in New Jersey launched a program that allows military veterans to earn college credits for their service-related experiences. As with other programs at community colleges serving military veterans and other servicemembers, WCCC’s Veterans In Pursuit of Educational Readiness (VIPER) requires, in part, helping them understand the college environment.

So when an opportunity came for educators to sample what it’s like to be a Marine, Robert Sintich, who created the VIPER program, took the opportunity. He also recruited another college official to join him for the week of training at Parris Island, S.C.—WCCC President Will Austin.

“I have a great deal more respect as to what these recruits go through,” Austin said. “They are being trained to be intelligent warriors. They are being very well educated.”

At Marine Corps Educators Boot Camp, designed is to educate the educators, Austin, Sintich and 75 others woke up at 5 am and trained until early evening.

Marines are always learning, said Sgt. Samuel Nasso, a spokesperson for the Marine Corps Recruiting Station in New Jersey. “Since day one a Marine is in training to the day the Marine retires, the goal is to strive to be a better Marine and a better individual in all facets of life,” Nasso said.

Austin and Sintich talked to the Marines about VIPER, which lets veterans receive up to 34 credits for their military training, plus up to 11 credits for courses in automotive technology, business, computer science, criminal justice, fire science and food and beverage management. A vet who takes full advantage of the program could earn an associate degree in as little as one semester, then seamlessly transfer to Thomas Edison State College to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Uncounted credits cost time, money

Credits that don’t count cost transfer students time, money — and often the opportunity to complete a degree, according to the Hechinger Report. 

“One of the most common complaints a legislator gets from a constituent about higher education is, ‘My credits don’t transfer,’” says Davis Jenkins, senior researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University, who has studied the issue.

“This is so common, but it’s heart-rending,” Jenkins says. “And it also pisses me off as a taxpayer.”

A third of students transfer at least once, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center says. Most lose credits along the way. Full-time students average 3.8 years to earn a two-year degree and 4.7 years to get a four-year degree, according to  Complete College America. An associate degree requires 60 credits, but the average graduate has earned 80, the advocacy group estimates. Bachelor’s degree graduates average 136.5 credits for a degree that requires 120.

Part of the problem is that public universities are largely funded based on their enrollment, not on whether students actually graduate. So while an institution has a financial incentive to take transfer students to fill seats left vacant when other students drop out, it may not have a financial incentive to help them successfully finish college and move on.

Karen Hernandez started at St. John’s University in New York and transferred after a year and a half to Nassau Community College, with 27 of the 36 credits she’d earned and paid for.  After another year and a half, she received an associate’s degree. Then she transferred to Columbia University with 55 of her 63 credits. After three years in college, she faces another three years to complete a bachelor’s degree in art history and human rights. (And, if she graduates, she’ll have a hard time finding a job and paying off her college loans with an art history and human rights degree.)

University faculty often question the quality of courses taught at other institutions.

“Everybody feels that the way they do it is the right way,” says Janet L. Marling, director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at the University of North Georgia. “To admit that somebody else does it equally well can chip away at their foothold.”

Sometimes students are told their credits will transfer, but don’t realize they won’t count toward their major. They end up with too many electives credits that don’t help them complete a degree. Others don’t learn if their credits transfer for a semester or more.

Some states have passed laws to guarantee associate degree graduates can transfer all their credits to a state university. But it’s a slow process.

It took Florida 10 years to bring its universities and colleges into line on transfer credits, for example. An analysis by a technical college in North Carolina found that only one of its English courses was accepted for core credit by all 16 of that state’s public universities. And some legislative efforts to make universities fix the transfer process have slammed up against the culture of competition.

Almost three years after California legislators demanded that anyone who earns an associate’s degrees at a community college be guaranteed transfer into the California State University system, for instance, students in two-thirds of all majors still don’t qualify, college and university officials there concede.

As more students take online courses, getting credits counted will become even more important. I predict that learning assessment will boom in the coming years as universities come under heavy political pressure to raise graduation rates by crediting what students have learned at other institutions, online, on the job, in the military or whatever.

Prior-learning credits help vets graduate

Helping veterans get college credit for skills learned in the military – speeding their way to a degree or credential — is the aim of the Maps to Credentials project, reports Community College Times. The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), the American Council on Education and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) are working with three community colleges to develop a prior learning assessment model.

Inver Hills Community College (IHCC) in Minnesota evaluated the most common military occupations for Minnesota National Guard members and “cross-walked them to our coursework,” said Anne Johnson, dean of business and social sciences, at an AACC Workforce Development Institute in San Diego.

. . . a combat engineer might get three credits for the supervisory techniques in a business course at IHCC and three credits for construction management. A unit supply specialist could get three credits each for introduction to computers, introduction to business in society, and principles of management.

The average veteran or active military student is awarded 6.8 prior-learning credits, listed on the transcript by the community college course titles.

Miami Dade College (MDC) gives credits for military experience toward associate degrees in criminal justice, electronics engineering technologies and office administration, as well as certificates in medical assisting. More degrees will be added.

Fayetteville Technical Community College (FTCC), located near Fort Bragg, North Carolina, has mapped military occupational specialties to courses in general education, culinary arts, surgical technology, radiography and emergency medical science.

 Since FTCC started this program in fall 2010, veteran enrollment has increased 40 percent. The college awarded 214 degrees to veterans last spring, compared to just three in spring 2010.

Faculty are finding that “service members are great students,” said Bridget Petzold, program coordinator for business administration/operations management. “They participate in class. They are excited about learning, they bring a lot of experience to the classroom and they bring the discussion up a notch.”

Lumina: Americans want affordable higher ed

Americans value higher education, but worry about its cost and quality, concludes a Gallup/Lumina Foundation poll.

“Americans want a more accessible and affordable system of higher education, one that does more to recognize and reward the personal skills, knowledge and abilities that are genuinely valued in the workplace and can be linked to future learning opportunities,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, president of Lumina Foundation.

Only 26 percent of respondents believe the cost of higher education is affordable to anyone who needs it, reported America’s Call for Higher Education Redesign.

Most want to make it easier for adults to earn credentials. Seventy percent of those surveyed favored awarding credit based on mastery of content rather than time in class and 87 percent said students should  receive college credit for knowledge and skills acquired outside of the classroom.

While 76 percent said traditional universities offer high-quality education, that drops to 54 percent for community colleges and 33 percent f0r 0nline colleges and universities.

Nearly everyone — 97 percent — said it is important to have a certificate or degree beyond a high school diploma. Of those who lack a postsecondary credential, 41 percent have considered going back to school in the last year.

Higher education is linked strongly to employment, notes the Chronicle of Higher Education.  “A good job is now what Americans want out of college, not just a degree.”said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education.

Challenging for credits

Cost-conscious college students can earn very low-cost credits by taking a free online course and passing a challenge exam, reports Paul Fain at Inside Higher Ed. 

. . . students can use free course content from providers like the Saylor Foundation and Education Portal to study for “challenge exams,” which may be the fastest and most inexpensive way to earn credits.

The examinations, like those offered by Excelsior College and the College Board’s College Level Examination Program (CLEP), are designed to test whether students grasp the concepts that would be taught in a conventional classroom version of general education courses. In that sense, they combine elements of both competency-based education and prior-learning assessment.

. . . Many, if not most, American colleges and universities accept that the tests are academically rigorous, and have accepted some Excelsior and CLEP exam credits, most of which cost less than $100. Another popular exam package is the U.S. Department of Defense’s DSST, formerly known as the Dantes Subject Standardized Tests, which can earn credit recommendations from the American Council on Education (ACE). And colleges, particularly those that cater to adult students, also develop and offer their own challenge exams for prior-learning credit.

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay sophomore Alex Stenner earned three credits in Psychology 101 during his two week winter vacation. Total cost: $90. Educational Portal’s self-paced course — short video lectures and quizzes —  was free. He paid to take the  CLEP test. His university’s Psych 101 course is taught in a large lecture hall with little chance to make personal connections with professors or fellow students, he says. Why spend the time and money?

“Massive open online courses could also be used by students to prepare for challenge exams,” writes Fain. The California community college system may partner with MOOC providers to help students pass credit-bearing exams, cutting wait lists and easing pressure to squeeze more students into traditional  courses.

Completion for all

College Completion Must Be Our Priority declares an “open letter” from the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment. “All the communities have come together — community colleges, research institutions, public universities and small liberal arts colleges — and reached agreement that completion needs to be our most important priority,” said E. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State and chair of the commission.

Almost half of students who enroll in a two- or four-year institution fail to earn a degree in six years, notes the New York Times.

 (The report) calls on colleges and universities to find ways to give students credit for previous learning, through exams like the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program, portfolio assessments or other college equivalency evaluations. It also calls for more services and flexibility for nontraditional students, suggesting innovations like midnight classes, easier credit transfers and more efficient course delivery, including online classes.

Colleges and universities must adapt to students’ needs, said Molly C. Broad, president of the American Council on Education.

“We have policies and practices built when colleges were filled with full-time, 18- to 22-year-old students who needed to be provided not only educational opportunities, but fed, protected, counseled and given recreation,” she said. “But that’s not our world today, when the overwhelming majority are part-time students juggling jobs, older students, veterans, whom we need to treat fairly — and do it on our own rather than have it done unto us.”

A second report, The American Dream 2.0, warned that borrowers who don’t graduate are “plunged underwater financially.”  The report suggests “making the financial aid application process simpler and more transparent, and holding both schools and students accountable for completion,” reports the Times.

New tool helps adults get credit for experience

To award college credits for students’ prior learning, colleges need a way to assess their training and experience, notes Community College Times. Rio Salado College in Arizona is using LearningCounts, an electronic portfolio-assessment initiative from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).

Students create electronic portfolios that are “assessed by expert faculty members from across the U.S. who examine the content and breadth of each student’s on-the-job learning, corporate training, independent study, military service and volunteer service,” reports Community College Times. LearningCounts then recommends how much credit to award.

Houston Community College (HCC) in Texas is using CAEL’s tool to provide an objective portfolio assessment, said Madeline Burillo, associate vice chancellor for workforce instruction at HCC.

“Especially in large community college systems where you have different colleges, a department chair at one college might have a different opinion about a portfolio than a department chair from another college.”

North Iowa Area Community College (NIACC) is testing LearningCounts to replace a cumbersome portfolio-assessment process.