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Competency and Affordability

May 6, 2014

The $10,000 bachelor’s degree remains elusive. But Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America has unveiled self-paced, competency-based degrees that students should be able to complete for that price, or less.

The private university’s regional accreditor, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, last week gave a green light to online bachelor’s degrees in health care management and communications from College for America, which is a nonprofit subsidiary of the university.

The college first began enrolling students last year. Until this week its sole option was an associate degree in general studies.

Tuition and fees at College for America are $1,250 per six-month term. The college uses a subscription-style model in which students can complete assessments at their own speed. The associate degree is designed for students to complete in an average of two years -- at a cost of $5,000.

The new bachelor’s degrees will be stacked on top of associate degrees, college officials said. That means students must first complete the associate degree -- or transfer in with one from elsewhere -- with the bachelor’s being the second half of the curriculum.

The bachelor’s portion should also take an average of two years to complete. As a result, students can go from start to finish in four years, spending a total of $10,000. But some will go faster, as have College for America students in the associate degree program.

“It’s more than reasonable to say you could do it in four years,” said Kristine Clerkin, executive director of the college.

She predicted that many students will pay even less. One reason is College for America’s academic calendar, which allows students to progress faster than students who are enrolled in a typical semester system. The college’s six-month terms are a full 26 weeks, so students can work year-round. In comparison, terms at traditional campuses are typically 18 weeks or so.

“Our year is 52 weeks,” Clerkin said.

Tuition subsidies will bring the price down further for many students. The college is heavily focused on employer partnerships, and has brokered arrangements with 50 companies and nonprofit employers, including McDonald’s, Sodexo and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. Employers steer potential students to the college. Most also cover some of the tuition.

College for America's associate degree program is also eligible for federal financial aid. So students could receive Pell Grants to attend the college. The new bachelor's degrees have yet to receive that approval. (Note: This paragraph has been changed from a previous version to clarify aid eligibility.)

Direct Assessment

The $10,000 bachelor’s degree is a hot idea. But few institutions have been able to make it work, at least without gaming the system a bit.

Texas Governor Rick Perry got the ball rolling three years ago when he challenged the state’s public universities to create a four-year degree for that price, including all fees. Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, followed with a similar challenge.

Several public institutions in both states subsequently rolled out degrees designed to make it under that price tag. But many of those programs rely on dual credit programs, in which students earn college credit in high school or while dually enrolled at a community college. And some of the final price calculations for their four-year degrees do not include textbook, housing or other expenses.

As a result, College for America’s leaders said they have created the first true $10,000 degree.

“This is the most remarkably priced college degree in the country, and the truth is that the price is the least remarkable thing about it,” Paul LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire’s president, said in a written statement. “What draws students and employers is the promise of mastering competencies they can immediately apply in their workplace. The price is just our way to make it accessible as widely as possible.”

College for America was the first to earn approval from a regional accreditor and the federal government to offer an aggressive form of competency-based education, dubbed direct assessment.

The college features degrees that are untethered from the credit-hour standard. Students progress through the curriculum based solely on their mastery of competencies, which do not track back to credits or traditional course equivalencies.

Capella University also has received approval and begun offering direct-assessment degrees. And the University of Wisconsin System and Brandman University have sent applications to the feds for their proposed programs. More will follow, experts said.

Complexity and Clarity

College for America’s associate degree is based on 120 competencies. Students prove their mastery of competencies by writing papers, creating presentations and participating in group assignments. The curriculum also features project-oriented homework and assessments.

There are no formal instructors. But the college has academic coaches and reviewers on hand for quick feedback on students’ work.

The new bachelor’s degrees will layer another 120 competencies on top of the associate degree. Incoming students in the associate program at College for America do not receive transfer credit. However, those who have previous college work under their belt -- or who have relevant professional skills and experiences -- should be able to apply that knowledge toward competencies and, presumably, move faster than their less-experienced peers.

Clerkin said the bachelor’s degree is more in-depth than the associate degree. The projects are more complicated, she said. And assessments are layered across several stages, each one requiring additional levels of mastery.

College for America offers little wiggle room for students in their path through the 240 competencies.

“It’s a pretty tight program,” Clerkin said. “There’s not a lot of choice in it.”

Some experts will welcome that approach. For example, Kay McClenney, the outgoing director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, has urged colleges to offer more prescribed, structured pathways. Choice and unnecessary complexity can trip up students, she has said. Powerful foundations agree, and have included structured pathways as part of their national college completion push.

But while College for America may win fans for its narrow degree tracks, the college will also face skepticism about academic rigor. Competency-based education is controversial, in part because it looks so different. And four-year, direct-assessment degrees up the ante.

Officials at the college argue that their degree tracks offer plenty of cohesion and rigor. To create the new programs, they said faculty members at Southern New Hampshire first surveyed comparable degrees at the host university. They analyzed course content, identified learning outcomes and then converted them into competencies for the direct assessment degrees.

Clerkin said the competencies in the curriculum are consistent, clear and measurable.

Perhaps most importantly, College for America won’t need to do a lot of selling to potential students about the respectability of its credentials. That’s because they all work for companies that have endorsed the college and its degrees.

“They value it,” Clerkin said of the college’s partners, and tell their employees, “this can help you in your career here.”

 

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