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College credit doesn't depend on seat time anymore

Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America doesn’t offer courses or give grades. It doesn’t even have professors, as we know them. Students earn an associate of arts degree through the online program by showing mastery of 120 “competencies” in such areas as communication and critical and creative thinking. This isn’t your father’s college. Or yours, either.

Education models that are based on skills acquisition, and not on credit hours, are about to become more common in higher education. In March, College for America received regional accreditation, the gold standard of educational quality. And in April, the school was granted eligibility for federal student aid. It is the first school not using the credit hour system to receive both accreditation and federal aid eligibility.

Another online university, Capella University, also uses a “competency-based” program; it has also received both approvals. Traditional brick-and-mortar schools such as Northern Arizona University and University of Wisconsin are seeking approvals for their own programs, also based on learning outcomes instead of seat time. These competency programs will also be online. More universities are certain to follow.

Rare bipartisan support, and a warming attitude toward innovation at the U.S. Department of Education, signal that competency-based higher education is gaining a foothold. It could transform the way many students earn college degrees. And that could result in a faster, less-expensive path to college degrees for some students, though some of the traditional advantages of the traditional college experience could be lost. And, the new programs are closely aligned with workplace needs.

The new climate of federal encouragement toward college programs based on direct assessment of competency marks a “tipping point,” said Cathy Sandeen, vice president of educational attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education. The nation's need for greater attainment of post-secondary training is spurring educational innovations, she said. Competency-based education is emerging as an avenue toward greater educational attainment that might be replicated on a large scale at relatively low cost.

Proving competency

Western Governors University was the first U.S. university to receive accreditation and student aid eligibility for an online program that gives credit for past experiences and lets students move through at their own pace. Founded in 1997, WGU was accredited by the Interregional Accrediting Committee in four different regions in 2003. Unlike the newcomers, though, WGU’s curriculum is built around the traditional credit-hour system. For-profit online schools, such as the University of Phoenix, use the credit hour system, too. At most of these, students hear online lectures from a professor and move through traditional homework assignments and tests within specific timeframes.

College of America, a private not-for-profit school, is different. Projects replace courses, and students demonstrate mastery of workplace skills instead of earning grades. The curriculum is organized around 120 competencies that show future employers what graduates know and can do. Students move through at their own pace. Examples of competencies include:

Can define and use marketing terminology and concepts

Can distinguish fact from opinion

Can convey information by creating charts and graphs

The intention is to ensure that students learn relevant workforce skills in such areas as communication, collaboration and critical and creative thinking. The competencies are developed through real-world projects such as developing a business. That might include thinking critically, writing effectively, building spreadsheets and collaborating with others, said Cathrael Kazin, College for America’s chief academic officer.

“Every project is evaluated by a trained reviewer, using a rubric to provide very specific feedback within as little as 30 hours,” said Kazin. Projects that don’t measure up to standards are sent back with guidance toward improvement, and students continue working, she said. Students don't move on to the next competency project until they demonstrate complete mastery.

“We care about what you can do, not how long it takes you to get there,” Kazin said.

Along the way, each student works with an academic coach who provides direction and encouragement. The coaches and project reviewers provide a human touch to the online program.

But there are no professors here. Students are guided toward online sources such as Kahn Academy and open-source texts to gain the knowledge needed for completing projects.

The absence of traditional faculty shouldn’t be misconstrued, said Sandeen. “It’s important to know that Southern New Hampshire University’s faculty helped develop the School of America’s competencies and means of assessment. That’s the most important component,” she said. These professors “designed the whole program.”

Kazin expects that a student new to higher education could likely complete College for America’s program in about two years. But students with prior college or workplace experience have completed associate degrees in much less time. The school’s first graduate, who had prior college experience but no degree, graduated in about three months.

Costs for attending College of America follow an “all-you-can-learn” system instead of charging tuition based on credit hours, said Amy Laitinen, a policy analyst for the New America Foundation. Students pay a $2,500 annual “subscription” fee, and can move through the competencies as quickly as they are able, until they complete their associate's degree.

After students master all of the competencies, they receive a competency transcript that shows potential employers exactly what they know and can do, Kazin said. They also receive a traditional transcript. In it, the competencies are “translated” into credit hours spread across the typical subject areas for an Associate of Arts degree.

That way, Kazin said, “we have all the criteria that makes credits transferable.”

Two-tiered system?

Right now, most of College of America’s 500 online students are adults in the nation’s workforce, the program's target audience. Most work for companies that partner with College for America, including McDonald’s, FedEx and ConAgra. The competency model works best for older students, said Sandeen.

The school’s website states that it was created to break down barriers to college-level education for working adults, and shift the higher education landscape. And it might do just that, according to the Center for American Progress’ report titled “A Disruptive Look at Competency-Based Education."

The report concluded that technologies, innovations and educational standards “are coalescing in ways that make competency-based education a potential game changer in the delivery and affordability of postsecondary education.”

Some aren’t pleased to see educational winds are blowing in this new direction, including Amy Slaton, a history and politics professor at Philadelphia's Drexel University. Slaton worries that the advent of inexpensive college degrees based on workplace competencies won’t solve growing inequities in U.S. society, and might worsen them.

“We are seeing a bargain version of higher education, and there are no bargains,” she said. “We should provide everyone with the highest quality college experience, but instead we are saying we need a stratified product line. The people with the least to spend will get the least amount of learning.”

Others worry that students who learn online will miss out on the enriching experience of being on a college campus, face-to-face with professors.

But inexpensive programs like College for America’s provide educational access and opportunity to “populations who don’t have a smooth pathway into postsecondary education," Sandeen said.

Nostalgic views of college life don’t match up with 21st-century realities, said Kazin, a College for America administrator. Nationwide, only 14 percent of college students actually live on campus.

“Most are in their communities, working. They're not sitting under the leafy trees, talking one-on-one with a magnetic professor,” Kazin said. “Yes, residential college life keeps young students in a safe place where they can try things out and explore. If you are an adult with a family, a job and financial pressures, you need something that works for you.”

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