Published on 2016/06/14
The EvoLLLution | In Praise of College for America: An Anniversary Love Letter
By focusing on delivering specific, workforce-oriented outcomes, crafting a leading student experience and working with employers, College for America has tripled its enrollments in three years and presented a workable model for accessible competency-based degree programming.

I came to Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) in June 2012, joining a four-person Innovation Lab that had just been awarded a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal was to develop an online, competency-based program for underserved working adults. College for America (CfA) did not yet exist, but we began to create it.

By September 2012, we had gotten approval from our regional accreditor to offer a “direct assessment” competency-based associate degree program; by April 2013, we had become the first school in the nation to receive approval from the US Department of Education under the direct assessment provision to provide financial aid to eligible students. As it happens, though many of our students would qualify for financial aid, the majority come to CfA through employer partners, who pay most or all of their tuition.

This is a love letter to CfA on the occasion of my fourth anniversary.

Many colleges tout their commitment to “access” and “student success” but at CfA, we have made these promises a reality. Our unique model has created an environment in which students who are too often not even considered college material learn, persist, thrive—and yes—graduate. Virtually all of our students work at least 40 hours a week. More than half are parents. Nearly a third identify as African American, and almost 17 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino. If CfA were a freestanding college, rather than a part of SNHU, we would qualify as a minority-serving institution.

Compared with community colleges, whose populations most closely resemble ours, CfA’s persistence rates are off the charts: Nearly 80 percent for term-to-term persistence for degree-seeking, AA students (and we have very long, six-month terms). While we have been officially in business for fewer than three years, we have graduated almost 500 students in certificate, associate and bachelor programs. Our offerings are rigorous. A visiting team from our regional accreditor noted no differences in the quality and difficulty of the work CfA students do compared with those from the SNHU campus-based college and SNHU’s large online college. According to that group, “the CfA [bachelor degree-seeking] students produced work of an equivalent level of understanding and quality as the SNHU Online and Campus students. The challenges students were assigned appear to be comparable and the end products evidence of similar levels of effort to produce them.” What’s more, they praised the fact that our associate degree students are performing at a much higher level than most of their peers at other non-selective institutions.

So what’s our secret? We believe the key to CfA’s success lies in the combination of competency-based education and flexible scheduling; a curriculum structured around realistic projects that challenge students to apply what they know and are learning in real-world contexts; extensive personalized support from Learning Coaches who facilitate students’ journey towards self-direction; extensive feedback from trained faculty who do not lecture but rather guide; a remarkably supportive and encouraging community of fellow learners; and finally, multiple opportunities for students to try, get feedback, and try again. Because this is competency-based education (CBE), students know exactly what is expected of them and what they need to do in order to demonstrate competency. There is no lurking in a class hoping to score a C-. Every student must demonstrate every competency. Yet students have as much time as they need and as much support as they want to get there. The coaching model deserves particular attention—and we use the word “coach” purposefully. Coaches do not “advise,” because we want students to grow and develop their own capacities for self-direction, not to be told what to do. Similarly, our faculty do not lecture, because we want students to develop their own capacities for learning. And one of the most important things they learn is how to accept and use feedback. Each time students get back the work they have submitted for evaluation, they receive plentiful narrative comments and a rubric (evaluation guide) that explains precisely what they have mastered and what they have yet to master. They also have extensive learning support in the form of carefully curated resources that focus on what they need to know and be able to do in order to demonstrate specific competencies.

It’s working, too. Twenty percent of our students—who are already employed—report receiving a promotion or new job after they graduate. Countless graduates describe their newfound confidence, belief in themselves, and tangible ability to contribute to their workplaces. One student used what he learned in the AA in General Studies program to recommend a new way to do inventory – which his employer, Panera, adopted. One student in the BA in Healthcare Management program wrote a handbook as part of a CfA project. It’s now being used to train new employees at the hospital where she works. Employers can’t say enough about CfA. They’ve told us about the ROI they see from employees who enroll together, the impact of employees enrolling in CfA on their retention and the motivating factor our programming has on employees inside and outside the office.

The remarkable thing is that we’ve been in business fewer than three years. Over the past year, our student population more than tripled. We have over one hundred employer partners and are on the verge of explosive growth in a variety of sectors. Of course, we did have to raise our tuition—to $3,000 a year. And it’s all you can learn, which means that well prepared, highly motivated students can graduate very quickly. But despite the extremely low price point, by next year, we plan to be fully self-supporting.

We are, truly, the envy of innovators in higher education, who see us as something of a shining city on the hill. We are besieged by people wanting to visit, wanting to know how we did it..

What we tell them is this: It began with the vision of an extraordinary president, Paul LeBlanc, who was a student of Clayton Christensen. He recognized that it is not possible to simultaneously administer and disrupt higher education. So he gave us the room and space and time to grow, and freed us from as many bureaucratic burdens as possible. We built CfA remarkably fast because we had an urgent need:

  • to address the enormous student debt crisis (more than 80 percent of our students graduate with no debt at all);
  • to make access meaningful with clear pathways and personalized support;
  • and to be accountable to our students, the public and employers.

We have done all that and more. We are actually changing the conversation in higher education. Of course we are young, so we try to be humble, but we are built for scale and raring to grow.

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