Competency catches on

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.

Washington colleges plan competency degrees

Washington state’s community colleges plan to offer an online, competency-based associate degree in business, reports Katherine Long in the Seattle Times. Students will be able to complete the degree in 18 months — or earlier, if they’ve already earned applicable college credits.

The program is designed for working adults.

Tuition will cost $2,666 for a six-month term and students who take a full load will be eligible for federal and state financial aid.

Graduates who transfer to a state university will be halfway to a bachelor’s degree in business administration. All their credits will be counted.

“The student will earn a transcript that will look like a regular college transcript,” said Jan Yoshiwara, deputy executive director for education at SBCTC. “What’s different is the mode of delivery.”

Competency-based degrees give students a chance to earn credit for what they already know how to do. A student who can demonstrate that he or she has strong writing skills, for example, could skip over parts of an English-composition course. In some courses, a student would take a test to prove he or she has already mastered parts of the subject; in others, the student may complete an assignment, Yoshiwara said.

Students will study composition, lab science, accounting, economics, business calculus, public speaking, political science, sociology and statistics. “Washington community colleges already teach those subjects online — even lab science, which involves using a kit to do experiments at home, and public speaking, in which students record themselves giving speeches,” reports Long.

Western Governors University-Washington, which offers competency-based bachelor’s and master’s degrees, helped design the program.

Competency-based education is “a remarkably logical way to reach students,” said Jean Floten, chancellor of WGU-Washington and formerly the president of Bellevue College. “It’s well-suited to people who have a clear goal in mind, and are self-motivated, and can navigate technology in an independent setting.”

Not ready for college: Will Common Core help?

Washington state hopes the switch to Common Core standards will cut the college remediation rate, reports the Seattle Times. A majority of community college students fail college placement tests, especially in math. The new standards claim to prepare students for college and careers.

The Washington Student Achievement Council, a new state agency, wants to test 11th graders for college readiness using the new Common Core-aligned tests. Students could use 12th grade to get up to the college level.

But some warn about linking a college readiness strategy to Common Core.

“I think waiting on the Common Core, given the politics that have developed around that now, is a pretty risk strategy for linking K-12 and higher ed,” said Penn researcher Joni Finney, one of the authors of a report that makes a long list of recommendations for improving higher-education outcomes in Washington. Finney praised the state of Texas for developing its own rigorous 11th-grade tests, and starting to beta-test the exams now.

Gene Sharratt, the executive director of WSAC, argues that Common Core is being well-received in Washington. The state is working with the Smarter Balance Consortium to develop 11th-grade tests, which are expected to be ready for beta testing in the 2015-16 school year.

Sharratt sees a slightly different risk ahead. His worry: That colleges may decide Common Core standards do not align with their requirements for college-level subjects. Even if students pass the 11th-grade tests, they still may need to take developmental classes in college.

In Maryland, community college leaders also hope Common Core standards will reduce the need for remediation, reports the Baltimore Sun.

Harford Community College faculty have been working with high school teachers to write learning objectives and lesson plans based on the new standards.

Core-aligned tests developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or PARCC, will replace state exams. PARCC evaluates 11th graders’ college readiness, so they have a year to catch up. The PARCC exam eventually could be used as a community college placement exam, replacing Accuplacer.

Online navigators will guide students

“New online tools” will help Washington state community college students choose courses, register on time, check their financial aid status and pay tuition and fees, reports the Seattle Times.

Navigating the state’s community-college landscape can be a bureaucratic nightmare for students — one made all the more maddening by an antiquated computer system.

Though the state’s 34 community and technical colleges make up a unified system, the computer network is a patchwork, lacking anything remotely resembling one-stop shopping for students wanting to manage their education online.

Many parts are 30 years old and students often must log into different applications or sections of a website to accomplish different tasks. Those challenges are intensified for students who attend more than one community college over the course of their education or start and stop it due to the demands of work or family.

Starting in August, a new web-based system, ctcLink, will create an advising center to help students “check registration dates, enroll for classes, review their academic plan, check on financial aid, pay tuition, request a transcript and contact an advisor,” reports the TimesCommunity College of Spokane and Tacoma Community College will pilot the new system.

In addition, the University of Washington is developing a new academic planner that will help community college students see how their credits will transfer, apply for a major and plan their four-year degrees.

Keeping college affordable

The average community college student pays $3,131 in tuition and another $1,200 for books and supplies per year, reports College Board. As costs rise, keeping college affordable is more important than ever, reports Community College Times.

California’s I Can Afford College web site tells current and prospective community college students about financial-aid opportunities.

“Students need to know that there is a variety of financial aid opportunities available to help them attend community college, and that’s the role the I Can Afford College program has served,” says Kathy Degn, extended opportunity programs and services and CARE coordinator at Cosumnes River College. “It helps break down the myths about aid, which in turn allows the financial aid offices to focus on serving students.”

Since the website launched in 2004, the number of students receiving financial aid has increased by nearly 70 percent.

To help students with textbook costs, College Open Textbooks, a group of colleges, government agencies and education nonprofits, is promoting the use of online learning resources. The collaborative was created by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation and the Open Doors Group.

“Although community college tuition is lower than a four-year college, the educational materials cost the same,” says Charles Key, director of adoptions and grants for Open Doors Group. “The cost of textbooks has risen at a rate that outstrips anything else in the economy, and in some cases students at two-year colleges pay more for their textbooks than for tuition.”

Washington’s State Board for Community and Technical Colleges has completed open-source materials for 81 core courses. Instructors can use, customize and distribute the course materials. Since the project began in 2011, it has saved students an estimated $5.5 million in textbook costs.

Apprenticeships: Old idea is new again

Apprenticeships are making a come back – and not just in trade union jobs –but only a third of today’s apprentices are community college students. Apprenticeship has spread from construction trades to “skilled occupations such as computer operator, machinist, dental laboratory technician, tool and dye maker, electronic technician” and more, reports Community College Times.

In Switzerland, Austria and Germany, apprenticeships provide training for more than half of young people. There and elsewhere, apprenticeships have been grown to include information technology, finance, advanced manufacturing, and maritime occupations. Germany has the oldest and best-known apprenticeship system. It offers programs leading to recognized qualifications in about 350 different occupations.

In the U.S., “apprenticeship programs offer an array of advantages over pure postsecondary education programs,”  concludes a Center for American Progress report by economist Robert I. Lerman.

“Since apprenticeship openings depend on employer demand, mismatches between skills taught and supplied and skills demanded in the work place are unusual. Apprenticeships provide workers with a full salary so that participants can earn while they acquire valued skills. Apprentices learn in the context of real work settings and attain not only occupational skills but other work-related skills, including communication, problem solving, allocating resources, and dealing with supervisors and a diverse set of coworkers.”

Community colleges can provide the academic instruction apprentices need, while employers provide the occupational training and workplace skills, Lerman writes.

Some community colleges are “slow to develop new courses that are required as new programs or new technologies in existing programs arise,” reports Community College Times. But there are a growing number of successful apprenticeship programs.

In Washington State, more than 200 students are learning the ironworking trade through apprenticeships run by the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee, a state-funded partnership among community colleges, industry and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The programs supply workers for Boeing Corp., the state’s largest employer.

South Carolina locates its major apprenticeship initiative, Apprenticeship Carolina, at its 16 technical colleges. The state-funded system is growing fast; since July 2007, the number of registered apprenticeship programs in South Carolina has grown from 90 to 230. All 16 of the state’s technical colleges are participating in apprenticeship programs.

The Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship program was started in the 1990s and has matured into the nation’s largest apprenticeship opportunity for high school students. Under the two-year program, high school juniors and seniors complete up to 900 hours of work-based learning and related courses. Many also earn college credits, and 70 percent go on to higher education.

Apprenticeship could be used to prepare young people for the growing number of “middle-skill jobs” that require some postsecondary training but not a bachelor’s degree.

Dean: New ‘dual’ models make no sense

Once upon a time, high achievers would take classes at a nearby college while finishing high school. Now “dual enrollment” is being pushed for all students — and sometimes especially for low achievers. That makes no sense, writes Community College Dean.

If some high school sophomore has already blasted through BC Calculus and is itching for more, I’m happy to offer a seat in our upper-level calculus sequence. The math department loves those students, and I don’t see much social purpose served in having them just circle the airport for the last year or two of high school.

But average students aren’t prepared for college work after sophomore year. Many high school graduates aren’t prepared.

Given that, it seems to me that beefing up the academic content of the last two years of high school is the obvious fix. When the students run out of AP classes their junior year, then talk to me about mass-scale dual enrollment. Until then, I don’t see it.

The third version of dual enrollment, pushed by the Gates Foundation, is supposed to prevent dropouts by motivating weak students. If they can’t handle high school work, the dean doesn’t think they can handle college classes. And if they’re placed in college remedial classes, where they belong, they won’t develop “a new peer group with new expectations.”

Community colleges are colleges. I understand the temptation to try to be everything to everyone, but at the end of the day, they serve the community best by being colleges. If the high schools need fixing, then the high schools need fixing.

In some cases, dual-enrollment students take classes at their high school taught by a college instructor or by a high school teacher following the college syllabus. Are these really college-level classes? I have my doubts.

Community College Times looks at the early college model in Florida, which is geared to high achievers.

“Early College has really helped me to prepare for what colleges would expect me to do,” said Anish Khanorkar, a high school sophomore enrolled in the Early College Program at Seminole State College of Florida (SSCF). A future surgeon, the 15-year-old has worked on a year-long research project in biology at the community college.

New legislation in Washington state will expand opportunities for high school students to earn college credits, reports P-20 Blog.

Completion rates higher at tech colleges

Certificate completion rates are significantly higher at technical colleges, which focuses on career training, than at community college, which also prepares students for academic degrees, according to a new report by the Community College Research Center. The study by Judith Scott-Clayton and Madeline Joy Weiss compared the completion rates of career-technical students in Washington state.

Technical and comprehensive colleges serve different populations, the study found. “A true apples-to-apples comparison requires limiting the analysis to a relatively small fraction (less than 10%) of students enrolled at either institution.”

. . . for this limited subset of career-technical students, technical schools have significantly higher certificate completion rates after three years, with no apparent deficit in associate degree completion.

However, institution type alone explains a small fraction of the overall variation in student outcomes across institutions.