Published on 2015/10/02

Navigating the CBE Frontier: Accrediting Competency

The EvoLLLution | Navigating the CBE Frontier: Accrediting Competency
Gaining accreditation for the UW Flex competency-based, self-paced degree program required UW leaders to think through and explain how their innovations and variations from the traditional approach would improve the experience and outcomes of students.

I’ve started this blog to provide a bit more detail on how our UW Flexible Option Program functions. As I get calls about our program, I’m often asked about specific challenges and how we face them; challenges about educational elements, about operations, about the business model, and about our institutional partnerships. We also get questions about the politics (both “capital P” and “small p”). What’s unique about UW Flex is that we’re building competency-based educational programs directly with our brick-and-mortar UW institutions. Challenges—and opportunities—abound. I plan to write about challenges in all these arenas.

UW Flex is the fully direct-assessment competency-based education program coming from the University of Wisconsin System. It offers flexible pathways for (largely) adult learners to obtain standard degrees from UW institutions. UW-Extension provides all operational and educational support and direction, partnering with other UW institutions on curriculum. We currently offer bachelor’s degrees in Nursing, Information Studies, and Diagnostic Imaging (with UW-Milwaukee), an associate’s degree in Arts and Science (with UW Colleges), and two certificates in Sales and Global Skills (with UW-Parkside). In the coming year, we will also offer a master’s in Geographic Information Systems (with UW-Stevens Point) and a certificate in Alcohol and Other Drug Counseling (with UW-Madison).

In this first entry, I wanted to report that we received notification this spring from our regional accreditor—the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) —that we had 100-percent successful one-year site visits for both our UW Colleges and UW-Milwaukee programs, and have also received HLC accreditation for our new certificate programs through UW-Parkside. This means that our entire slate of current UW Flex programs are now 100 percent accredited. That’s very good news for us, and I congratulate the hundreds of people across all our UW institutions who are working so hard to make our UW Flex programs a success.

Here’s how we approached accreditation: First, we enjoy good relationships with HLC, so in 2012 we reached out to them to explain what we were planning to create through UW Flex: fully direct-assessment competency-based, self-paced pathway for students to earn their degrees. Since our UW institutions are already accredited, HLC suggested that we complete substantive change forms to seek accreditation for the UW Flex programs we were building.

UW Flex contains several innovations that present significant challenges to the traditional way higher education institutions are accredited—from how we admit students, to our efforts to make their experience seamless, to definitions of substantive engagement with faculty, to operational issues like enrollment and faculty workload. As one example, the role of our Academic Success Coaches (or ASCs) is fundamental to supporting student success, and HLC thoroughly explored this role with us, including how it fit within their guidelines of engagement with faculty. We provide “wrap around” support to students through the ASCs—they’re a one-stop-shop for students needing help in a variety of arenas. Their support is proactive, reaching out to students at least once a week, more if they’re showing difficulty. We built the ASC role based on the literature on how adult and non-traditional students best learn and advance in their programs.

The ASCs constitute a new academic support and engagement role, and from an accreditation perspective, we needed to work with HLC to best explain how it fit their guidelines for faculty oversight and student engagement. Since competency-based education (CBE) accreditation was new to HLC when we first engaged with them, we needed to navigate this new territory together, which resulted in valuable guidance to help us complete our substantive change application. This process also provided value to HCL as they adjusted guidelines to better serve CBE programs.

I’ll look forward to sharing more about UW Flex, and look forward to hearing comments and questions.

This is the first installment in an ongoing series by Aaron Brower sharing lessons, insights and reflections on developing, launching and maintaining a competency-based program based on his experiences with the UW Flex.

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Readers Comments

Travis Fletcher 2015/10/02 at 8:14 am

Sounds like UW had to be very proactive about getting this program off the ground and committed to seeing it through. Being willing to blaze the trail and meet any obstacles head-on is really the definition of innovation. They knew there would be challenges and they took steps to anticipate them. Nice work.

Lucy Arnold 2015/10/02 at 11:43 am

Looking forward to hearing more about how this process went over the next installments. I think a lot of administrators will benefit from seeing the path to CBE laid out a little more clearly with some of the logistics that need to be taken care of. Sometimes all the rest of us need is a little push in the right direction.

Thomas Kelly 2015/10/02 at 3:47 pm

I’m interested in hearing more about the Academic Success Coaches, particularly how they’re received by students and what sort of training they have. We keep hearing about how adult students need more proactive engagement and more academic encouragement, and it’s exciting to see schools taking on this challenge in different ways.

    Aaron Brower 2015/10/06 at 8:39 am

    Thanks for your note. I do plan to write about the Academic Success Coaches in a future post. We’re finding that the ASCs are absolutely essential to our students’ success.

Richard Nelson 2015/10/05 at 1:34 pm

The recently released audit report (to HLC regarding Competency Based Education) from the Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General once again illustrates the inherent conflict between responsible regulation and promoting innovation. Unfortunately, much of the Department’s higher ed rule-making in recent years has too frequently looked more like the product of internal disarray than of a carefully maintained balance.
After your UW-Extension colleague,Deb Bushway, has a chance to settle in to her new role as adviser to Under Secretary Mitchell, perhaps she could offer some insight into the Department of Education’s apparent Jekyll and Hyde approach to CBE in a future post to this blog.

Aaron Brower 2015/10/06 at 8:41 am

Yes, the Dept of Ed is also on uncharted territory, and we’ve had to work in an iterative way with them. I plan to share more about the process we went through to gain approval to award Title IV financial aid. And that’s a good idea for me to ask Deb Bushway to do a guest post here.

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