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Revolutionizing Competency-Based Education

AUDIO | Revolutionizing Competency-Based Education
Institutions such as SNHU are exploring competency-based education models that seek to remove seat-time as a measure of success.

The following interview is with Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University. Southern New Hampshire University’s Innovation Lab recently developed a ground-breaking competency-based approach to higher education called College for America, where students can earn their associate’s degree for $2,500 a year. In this interview, LeBlanc reflects on the process of putting the College for America program together and shares his thoughts on how he envisions it growing in the future.

1. When College for America was envisioned, what were the characteristics of the student that the program was perfectly suited for?

We are targeting working adults who are often least well-served by the traditional higher ed industry. So, these are people who are often hourly workers, often minimum-wage workers; they have busy lives in which education is sort of a third priority after family and job. And our traditional campuses are often not well designed for them; our traditional residential campuses are designed for the coming-of-age experience for 18-year-olds. Even our most adult-friendly campuses, our community colleges, can feel like foreign places. They are full of acronyms that adults don’t understand and bureaucratic processes that are cumbersome and offices are often closed at the wrong hours and you walk onto a campus and it can feel like a very foreign place if you come from a socio-economic world where college isn’t very much of an option.

So, we’re trying to reach out to people in that situation to give them better skills and it’s sort of an on-ramp; an on-ramp to more stable work, an on-ramp to further study. And we have to make it, for this group, ultra-affordable, which is why our program is out in the market at $2,500 a year.

2. What are the most significant problems with higher education today when it comes to serving adult students, especially those who are working?

It’s a variety. One is a convenience factor: busy people lead extremely busy lives and we tend to often have debates about higher education that conflate all the various jobs that higher ed does. So, the job of the traditional residential campus is a very different job than of the flagship resource university which does a very different job than educating busy adults.

For most working adults, they are rushing from work, going to a fast food line, scarfing down a bad dinner as they drive to a class, rushing in to make their evening class and then hoping to get home — rushing right out afterwards — in the hopes that they might see their kids before they go to bed. That’s a much more typical experience. That’s the sort of thing that we’re trying to improve.

So, one is simply convenience, the ability to bring education into people’s lives in ways that work better.

The second is kind of a cultural hurdle that our campuses can feel like foreign places with a lot of bureaucracy and acronyms and just don’t feel welcoming in some ways and so that’s a piece that adults talk about.

The third is cost. The reality is that, for lots of Americans, there are 37 to 40 million Americans with zero to few college credits at a time when more and more work requires at least a two-year degree. And they’re often shut out of higher education simply because of its high cost. And that’s true even with some community colleges. So, another significant barrier.

The third is that we still have been historically based on the credit hour and making people sit through it. And while there are some ways to circumvent that — so, prior learning assessments, for example — adults have learned a lot by the time they come back. And we wanted a way of letting them more quickly demonstrate what they already know and then move onto the stuff they don’t. And time to completion is really critical for this audience. They need these credentials now and we don’t give it away — in fact, I would argue that College for America, our degree program, is really quite challenging —  but we don’t want to actually have students spend unnecessary time, 15 weeks in a class for example, sitting through material that they’ve already demonstrated competency for.

3. How did you bring regional accreditation agencies on-board to approve the program when you’ve gotten rid of the credit hour?

I think the keyword in all of this work at this point in the evolution of competency-based education is equivalency. So, I think it was comforting to our accreditor — in our case, the Commission [on Institutes] of Higher Education at NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges) — I think it was comforting to them and necessary. I should say more than comforting; it was necessary for us to be able to map our competencies to the learning outcomes of courses they could recognize. And, this is also important for our Department of Education approval under Title IV. So, equivalencies are the key.

And there is a kind of mismatch right now in the evolution of CBE, or competency-based education; while there is provision for direct assessment of learning — and that was kind of the big breakthrough last week when the Department of Education approved our program — while there’s accommodation for it, the actual regulatory piece still talks about credit hours and time. So, we have to make this translation, if you will, and that was important.

But, at the end of the day, that translation is about the outcomes and what people learn, and it isn’t around time. So, to the accreditor’s credit (pardon the pun) they allowed us to talk about the direct assessment of what students know, what they master by the time they graduate.

I will also say this, and it’s an important point to remember because I think in some circles, the accreditors are positioned as hurdles to competency-based education. But, in fact, in their defense, they have for more than 10 years been hammering our institutions to be better about our learning outcomes and about our assessments. And those two things are kind of the underlying DNA of competency-based education. So I could make an argument that the accreditors have been ahead of the institutions, but it’s only now that we’re seeing institutions try to rush into this space and coming up against hurdles.

4. There are nine competency clusters that students work within to earn their degree; each competency is a skill in high demand in the workforce. Can you describe the process by which you determined which competencies to focus on?

We began by looking at the Lumina Foundation Degree Qualifications Profile [DQP] and that’s a good starting point or foundation because it gives you a rough overview and way of thinking about the competencies in broad ways. So, that was the first piece.

The second part was — remember, this is an associate’s degree — so we had our own general education requirements that had to somehow be reflected in here. Again, not in terms of the courses, but in terms of outcomes. So, if you look at the DQP, the Degree Qualifications categories, you get intellectual skills as one bucket, civic learning as another, applied learning as the third, specialized knowledge — what we might talk about as the major — and then broad, integrated knowledge. So that was kind of our foundation and what we ended up building again were 120 competencies, as you said, nine clusters. And those clusters fall into those three board categories of the DQP.

If you take a look at intellectual skills, for example, you have a cluster of competencies around quantitative skill and we have another cluster of competencies around communication skills. If you look at the DQP civic learning, we have a cluster of competencies around ethics and social responsibility. Another one around a teamwork and collaboration. If you look at the DQP’s third bucket, the applied learning specialized knowledge, we have something on business essentials — that’s the closet thing we get to a major. And we have some integration competencies; so, asking students to start to pull together competencies in ways that they can use together. So, it’s very much true to the spirit of the Degree Qualifications Profile.

5. Do students focus on a particular competency cluster in order to earn their degree, or do they try to achieve competencies from all nine of the clusters, or do they try to achieve every competency on the list?

They have to complete all 120. And this is, again, a little bit of the complexity of the program is to master competencies. You do so through completion of tasks. And there are 72 tasks if you were to do all of them. They’re at three levels, so level-one tasks will account for maybe one to two competencies. These are lower level. But the next level up, the level-two task, will account for three to four competencies. And at the highest level, a level-three task will actually account for five to eight competencies. And this is where those tasks — and they’re really simulations or hypotheticals — will require a student to synthesize and pull together a series of competencies. So, you can complete the whole of the associate’s degree by completing as few as 22 level-three tasks. You can complete the associate’s degree with a higher number of level-one and level-two tasks, but in that case, there is no way to complete without at least some level-three tasks. Because we want to see if you can synthesize at a high level.

Students can come into the program because they are not tethered to time or sequence; they can start on any competency cluster they like. They come in, they can say to their advisor, “You know what? I’ve been a bookkeeper for 20 years. I’m really good at the math. Can I take a look at those competencies and those tasks?” and the advisor will sit down with them and walk through it together, usually online. And they may say, “You’re right, let’s give it a try.”

And it’s really important that you give people these early wins. In other words, competencies that are granular enough for them to be able to get their arms around and start to build confidence and then start to build skills upon which they can scaffold. But there’s no way you can complete without having all of the writing tasks. So, even though you might start with things as simple as mastering a paragraph, you’ll end with college-level writing. And the beauty of this is there is no sliding by with a “C.” Our assessments are binary; you’ve either mastered a competency or not yet. Those are your only two states of being, if you will.

6. Does every student have access to these advisors?

Every student has a dedicated advisor — or “coach,” which is the phrase we use in our nomenclature — who is with them through the whole of the program.

Those coaches are a combination of life coach — because a lot of our students have been away from school for a long time, they may have had a mixed record of success in their previous schooling. A lot of times what we learn with adult learners is that it’s not as much academic advising as much as psycho-emotional advising. It’s the encouragement, sometimes the cajoling, sometimes the guidance that says, “You know what? You’re really struggling with this level-two task, why don’t we talk about it? Let’s dial back, let’s give you some early wins and build back up to that level.”

So, it’s all of those things. It’s directing students towards learning resources; whatever they need. And that advisor, that coach, is with you through the whole of your experience and they are critical to the success.

7. The program costs students a flat rate of $2,500 per year to take as many courses as they choose on the way to an associate’s degree. What would it take to develop a similar model for bachelor’s degrees?

I just want to clarify a point: they actually bill $1,250 every six months. So, while it would be an exceedingly formidable task, one could complete in six months and the Associate’s Degree will have cost them only $1,250. We have some students in the current cohorts who seem on pace for completing in nine months and, in that case, the degree with cost them $2,500, not the $5,000 that we tend to talk about. So, there is real rewards for moving along. I don’t know that we’ll have anybody do it in six months, at least not yet, but it’s possible.

We will begin design this summer on a four-year bachelor’s degree in the competency-based model. And that will require us to go back to an accreditor and to the Department of Education, by the way, for approval if we want Title VI funds.

We think some bachelor’s degree paths will be more amendable than others. There are already lots of four-year degree programs that are skill and performance-based. So, accounting, for example, is a highly-skilled technical field, but it’s one that has the CPA exam waiting for you at the end and you demonstrate your competency. So, we think some will be easier than others. The humanities tend to resist competency-based approaches, though we don’t think they have to.

So, right now our associate’s degree is an associate’s degree in general studies with a concentration in business. It is likely that the first four-year degree will be a general studies with a major in business. That gives us the broadest platform upon which to build subsequent iterations of the program. So, for example, we are in conversation right now with a number of very large healthcare systems about doing an associate’s degree program with a focus on non-clinical health administration.

8. Are there any transfer mechanisms set up for students who complete and graduate from College for America with their associate’s degree to move into a four-year program?

This is a question that both our accreditor and the Department of Education were very interested in. We are able to, at request, produce a traditional degree transcript that would list all of those traditional courses for which students have completed the equivalent work in terms of the outcomes.

The decision to accept transfer credit is always at the prerogative of the receiving institution, so we can’t make a declaration about that. But I think we can comply with what most institutions want and we believe that when those institutions see the skill level of our graduates, that they will actually welcome them because when we say these students can write or can do critical thinking or have quantitative reasoning ability, we can stand behind those claims in a way that few other institutions do.

9. Is there anything you’d like to add about the development of the College for America program and the impact it could have on the higher education industry?

Competency-based education models really are having a paradigmatic change in higher education because what we’ve been historically good at for a very long time is telling the world exactly how long someone has sat at a desk. But we’ve been much less precise in saying what people have actually learned. So there was a day, it wasn’t so, so long ago — let’s just pick a number; 25 years ago or 30 years ago — when a college degree was a proxy for certain things: the ability to think critically, the ability to write well, the ability to present well.

When I meet with employers, I will sometimes ask them, “Have you hired someone with a college degree who doesn’t write well? Have you hired somebody with a college degree that you wouldn’t put in front of a group of customers to make a presentation, who can’t understand a balance sheet?”

And it’s like touching a nerve.

Employers, workforce development people, no longer trust the college degree as a proxy for these things which are considered really basic skills. And that’s why I think [College for America] has had such a great response from large-scale employers. I think it signals a real need and [we’re] not the first, obviously — Excelsior [College], Western Governors University, Charter Oak [State College] in Connecticut have been working on competency-based programs. But it’s the first that has been fully untethered from the traditional course. And it’s the first to qualify for federal financial aid, so I think it really is a historic moment in higher education as we move down this evolutionary path. And there are a lot of programs in the pipeline. You’re going to see more competency-based programs coming and I think they’re game changers.

Here is what I would also hasten to say, though. Sometimes people say, “Oh my God, this is going to change all of higher ed!” and I go back to something I said earlier: which higher ed?

There’s still an important place in our society for traditional, residential higher education that provides coming-of-age experience. And those programs, some of the 18-year-olds largely take for granted that they’ll get a good education and what they’re really interested in is everything else. What will be my opportunity? What are the organizations? What’s this living community like? And some of the stuff that is kind of dismaying — is there a food court, is there a climbing wall — all this stuff that’s inflated the cost of higher education. That experience is not going to go away. We really have to figure out how to make sure how this stays within reach of people of more modest means; I do worry about a have and have-not society around higher ed. The research function is not going to go away and competency-based education will have very little impact on it. So, that’s another kind of higher ed that’s not going away anytime soon.

But, for the higher ed that serves the majority of today’s college students —  which are working adults — I think this is a real game changer and I think it has implications for the community college systems and just lots of other people who are out there in the market.

This interview has been edited for length.

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