Committed to driving efficiencies and finding new ways to get students through the system and into high-paying jobs more quickly, the nation’s community colleges have tried all manner of innovation: closer partnerships with industry, more defined academic pathways, mandatory student-success courses, dual enrollment, reverse transfer.
Many of these approaches have real promise. In some cases, colleges are already seeing significant results. Still, administrators say they have a hard time keeping pace with the persistent demand for skilled workers.
So, what’s the problem?
More than anything, community colleges face a fundamental challenge: Education takes time. Credit hours are credit hours and, despite all the strategies and tools at their disposal, students can only go so fast.
That’s at least one of the reasons more colleges are exploring the benefits of competency-based education (CBE) — programs that allow students to progress at their own pace, assuming they can demonstrate subject mastery.
Back in March, a cohort of 18 U.S. colleges and two statewide education systems announced their participation in the Competency-Based Education Network, funded with a three-year grant from the Lumina Foundation.
In January, at least a dozen community colleges in Washington state will participate in a new pilot program that will allow students to pursue a competency-based degree in business administration.
That program, which the Associated Press detailed late last month, consists of 18 online courses and will allow students to progress at their own pace.
Administrators say students could potentially finish the degree nearly six months faster than it would take to complete a traditional two-year associate program.
Interested in pursuing a CBE program at your college? We reached out to Connie Broughton, project director for competency-based education at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, for a look at some of the factors that contributed to the launch of Washington’s latest competency-based initiative.
The program is affordable. Students will be able to enroll in Washington’s CBE pilot for about $2,700 per term. That includes tuition and fees.
Instead of textbooks, students pay a flat fee of $40 per term to use open-license materials. “Open educational eesources (OER) not only reduce student textbook costs but also can be revised and reused by faculty and course developers,” says Brighton. “We can find or create exactly the open resources our students need for success.”
Rather than allowing students to enroll in individual courses openly throughout the year, enrollment is done on a term basis. That way, financial aid can be evaluated per term, and more students can achieve full-time status.
Time to learn
It’s not just about helping students move faster. Longer terms are designed to give students who have difficulty mastering a subject more time to work through the course. A student who has difficulty with a math course may need six months to complete, while another student might take two months. Students who complete their coursework more quickly can start working on coursework for the next semester.
New approach to mastery
Traditionally, students have only been able to test out of courses by taking exams. But CBE is about proving more than just your ability to pass a written test.
“We want to replace time with mastery as the measure of learning,” Broughton says. The hope: Students who have a strong level of knowledge coming in will work through the courses and graduate faster instead of testing out.
Mandatory orientation, advising
Advisers are highly involved in helping students pace themselves through the program. Before students start, they are given details about the program and what it involves, and they are coached throughout the process to devise an individual path to success.
Despite being taught largely online, students have access to their professor on a regular basis. Professors are available via email, phone and Skype, so students get as much help as they need.