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WASHINGTON -- Competency-based education is spreading among community colleges, thanks to an assist from Western Governors University.

The university is a pioneer of the competency-based approach, which relies on self-paced instruction and the assessment of competencies rather than conventional grading or courses. During the last year Western Governors has helped 11 community colleges create their own competency-based degrees and certificates, mostly in information technology tracks (see box).

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Labor have provided start-up funding for those partnerships. Gates kicked in $1 million over three years for the work.

The project has been labor-intensive, said Sally Johnstone, vice president for academic advancement at Western Governors, which offers online bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Creating a competency-based program “touches every structure within the institution,” she said.

Johnstone was speaking at an event the New America Foundation held here on Monday. The American Council on Education and American Association of Community Colleges were co-hosts.

Administrators from a few community colleges joined Johnstone in describing their partnerships with the university. The community college officials discussed the hurdles they faced in creating competency-based education programs, including challenges around financial aid policies, accreditation and concerns from faculty members.

Competency-based education has its critics. Some fear it will lead to a cheapened version of the traditional degree, where checking boxes replaces learning and where general education is threatened. But defenders of the approach say competency-based education can equal what occurs in the traditional lecture hall when it comes to assessing and proving that college-level learning is happening.

Some community colleges have already given the emerging form of higher education a try. One notable example is the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, which for five years has offered modular, online courses through its “Learn on Demand” portal.

But the newly announced foray by 11 community colleges gives competency-based education a potentially substantial foothold in the two-year college sector.

Labor Department grant recipients:

Austin Community College

Broward College

Edmonds Community College*

Sinclair Community College

Gates project participants:

Bellevue College

Columbia Basin College

Lone Star College System

Ivy Tech Community College (Fort Wayne and Lafayette)

Spokane Falls Community College

Valencia College

* Also part of the Gates grant

The work started with Labor Department grants, which are part of $1.5 billion in funding aimed at creating systemic improvements in workforce development by community colleges. The projects that got the nod tend to feature heavy involvement from employers in working with colleges to create academic programs.

Competency-based education is well-suited to that sort of conversation between educators and employers, according to panelists at the event. That’s because – ideally at least – it more clearly describes what students know and can do than can conventional grades and transcripts.

There is a growing desire from the federal government to “make peoples’ skills visible” and to find a “shared language around competencies,” said Mary Alice McCarthy, a senior policy analyst for the New America Foundation, who previously worked for both the Labor Department and U.S. Department of Education.

Early Adopters

Four community colleges used Labor Department grants to create competency-based credentials with the help of Western Governors. The university provided expertise, conducting workshops for a broad range of college employees, ranging from registrars to staff members who oversee learning-management systems.

So far those colleges enroll 250 students in the new programs, Johnstone said.

The $1 million from the Gates Foundation is funding the creation of competency-based degrees and certificates at seven other community colleges. The programs are set to go live in January.

"They really do look quite different,” Johnstone said.

Western Governors was founded in 1997. Part of the private, nonprofit university’s original mission was to promote the spread and acceptance of competency-based education, according to Johnstone.

In addition to helping the 11 community colleges create new credentials, officials from Western Governors are working to create transfer pathways for students who complete their associate degrees and want to continue their online, competency-based path by enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program at the university.

Johnstone said in an interview that the goal is to help transfer students “seamlessly go into WGU.”

Broward College was part of the Labor Department-funded first group, receiving $3.2 million from the feds. The college, which is located in Florida, has begun enrolling students in a fully online associate of science degree track. The computer systems specialist degree includes general education requirements, said Johnstone.

Linda Howdyshell, Broward's provost, was a panelist at the New America Foundation event. She said 20 students are currently enrolled in the new degree program.

“This is not right for every student,” Howdyshell said.

The college faced several wrinkles in creating the degree, she said, including questions about how to do grading and transcripts. Another issue was the faculty workload and how to pay instructors for creating the competency-based curriculum. That’s where the federal money came in handy.

“Without that incentive I think we would have had difficulty” said Howdyshell.

Several panelists at the event said it is important to avoid a top-down approach when trying the competency path. That means involving faculty members early and often.

Howdyshell said administrators at Broward sought to be “change whisperers” rather making lofty pronouncements about the disruptive potential of competency-based education.

“When we talk about it as a big change,” she said, faculty and other staff get “scared about their jobs.”

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