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Competency-Based Education Supporting the Mission

By Sonya Stinson

In Washington state, colleges are coming together to test a business transfer degree program that gives students access, flexibility and a path to completion.

The pledge to provide innovative ways to deliver instruction, along with affordable access, is inscribed in the mission statement of Columbia Basin College, in Washington state.

One of the college’s most recent moves toward fulfilling that promise is to take on the role of lead institution in a statewide pilot program using competency-based education (CBE). Launching in July 2015, this optional online competency-based business transfer degree pathway will allow students to work at their own pace, save money and perhaps lessen the number of courses required.

Columbia Basin College is one of eight Washington state community colleges participating in the pilot, says Cathy Clary, who is the program’s student services coordinator. Others that have signed on: Bellevue College, Centralia College, Everett Community College, Olympic College, Pierce College–Ft. Steilacoom and Pierce College–Puyallup, and Tacoma Community College.

The desire to improve completion rates among time-challenged students is a major motivator for the colleges that have embraced competency-based education. “The reason that the state and the presidents felt this was important is because we have over a million students in Washington state alone that have some college credits but no degree,” Clary says. “A lot of them are working professionals who have families, who have a career, and they just can’t find a way to fit in time to go on campus.”

Competency-based education in the works

A successful experiment at four state community colleges several years ago encouraged higher-education officials to consider extending the application of CBE to a degree program. Washington state schools that received the earlier Gates Foundation grant funds were Bellevue College, which created a CBE business software specialist certificate; Columbia Basin College, cybersecurity certificate; Edmonds Community College, five information technology certificates; and Spokane Falls Community College, business and software application certificate. Clary says she doesn’t have much information about the success of those programs but does know they are popular with students because the programs are flexible and allow students to demonstrate they already have some knowledge that would count toward meeting the competency requirements.

For the upcoming pilot, the colleges selected an existing popular degree program that included a large number of students enrolled in online courses: the business transfer degree. The program is designed to assess knowledge gained through work, military service or previous studies. If students pass the competency tests, they can skip some of the basic instruction, thereby accelerating their path to completion. For example, Clary says, a student with work experience in bookkeeping might not have to take all three of the required accounting courses in the business degree program.

The program is full time, with a minimum course load of 20 credits, or four five-credit classes. Students can enroll for four-, five- or six-month periods. Students who finish one set of online courses in time to start others within the same enrollment period can do so at no extra cost.

As the lead institution, Columbia Basin oversees the hiring of faculty for the program. Four full-time faculty members will teach courses in math, English, accounting, economics and business law. Six adjunct faculty members will teach sociology, art, communication, political science and other subjects. Faculty members are heavily involved in the determination of competencies and assessment tools, as well as in finding appropriate open education resources, Clary says.

Program administrators also hired a completion coach who will check in with students weekly to monitor their progress. For now, one coach will work with students at all eight participating colleges, although more may be added as enrollment increases.

Making the programs scalable

“In the end, this program may evolve so that each campus has its own competency-based program,” Clary says. “We think it will be highly successful and will encourage that kind of development, but, right now, we’re adding completion coaches and instructors as we go along.”

“We plan to open it up to more colleges within the state after the pilot. In that way, the student enrollments will go up, and the tuition will allow more staffing,” Clary says.

Like the earlier CBE certificate program, the current online degree program is funded through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The grant will cover 111 students in the first year. While Clary says she won’t know until summer how many will sign up, based on the response to the previous CBE pilot, there’s reason to believe the slots will fill up fast.

“One of the certificate programs started out with a few students, and in a very short time — I think it was the first quarter — they had 100,” Clary says.

Does your college offer CBE courses? In the Comments, tell us what your college has learned.

Sonya Stinson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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