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Brandman University’s competency-based bachelor’s degree gives a glimpse of where the increasingly popular form of higher education might be headed.

The new bachelor of business administration is fully online. There are no textbooks. Students can access 30,000 pages of course material for the degree (not all of it required) on their tablets or smartphones.

Content is personalized, and responds to the 44 currently enrolled students based on their progress. About 60 percent of the required 80-plus “competencies” are linked to performance-based assessments, like writing a paper, working on a group project or creating a portfolio. The rest of the work is objective-based, such as test-taking.

The degree is also completely severed from the credit-hour standard. Brandman is one of four institutions to get both the U.S. Department of Education and its regional accreditor to sign off on this type of program, which is called “direct assessment.” That approach means students can work at their own pace while also receiving federal financial aid.

Brandman estimates the typical student will be able to complete the degree in 30 months. At $5,400 in tuition and fees per year, that means some students should be able to earn the bachelor’s degree for $10,000. That amount has become a trendy target price for a four-year degree, particularly among conservative governors. Students who take longer to complete than the expected 30 months will pay more than $13,500, however.

One reason students should be able to finish quicker than in a traditional program is that they can work toward the degree during 48 weeks of a year, rather than on a semester schedule. They will have an academic coach and access to tutoring faculty throughout.

“You can do it in bits and pieces,” said Laurie Dodge, Brandman’s vice chancellor of institutional assessment and planning and vice provost, adding that students can “be working on more than one competency at a time.”

That’s important for the nonprofit Brandman, whose students tend to be adults with jobs.

The university is a subsidiary of Chapman University, which is a private, residential institution based in Orange County, Calif. Brandman, however, offers blended and online degrees out of its almost 30 campus locations in California and Washington State. About 88 percent of the university’s 12,000 students are at least 25 years old. Roughly half (46 percent) are eligible to receive Pell Grants, and 43 percent are members of minority groups.

Nontraditional students -- meaning ones who aren’t 18-24 and interested in attending a residential campus -- appear to be a natural fit for the flexibility of competency-based learning, which allows them to move more quickly through material they already know or to spend more time on concepts when needed.

Many of the more than 200 institutions that are currently adding competency-based degrees are focused on working adults. Yet experts said Brandman has gone further than most.

In addition to its successful pursuit of direct assessment, the university is “possibly unique” in having taken an existing undergraduate major and rebuilt it as a competency-based program, said Mike Offerman, a consultant and president emeritus of Capella University.

As a result, Brandman’s foray is “more institutional and systemic” than those of most other institutions, many of which have created new competency-based programs outside of their core bachelor’s degree programs.

Rigor and Business-Friendly

Several outside vendors want to help colleges give competency-based education a whirl.

College for America, a subsidiary of Southern New Hampshire University, recently spun off its competency-based learning platform. The nonprofit institution’s new offering, Motivis, is now a for-profit company that offers its services to other colleges.

Likewise, Fidelis Education’s learning relationship management system (LRM) can work for institutions with competency-based degrees. Gunnar Counselman, the company's founder and CEO, said one institution is using the system this way, and another 20 plan to create competency-based badges to supplement their core curriculums. Educate Online is another player in this new field.

For its experimental degree, Brandman partnered with Flat World Knowledge, a company based in Washington, D.C., which got its start as a digital textbook publisher. Flat World now offers a competency-based learning platform.

Christopher Etesse, the company’s chief executive officer, said demand for competency-based education is “hotter and moving faster than the LMS market was in 1997.”

Brandman’s faculty members began designing its bachelor’s degree about two years ago, bringing Flat World in last April. One of the university’s first steps was to poll 1,000 students to gauge interest in a competency-based program.

They got a positive response, and moved on to asking employers for guidance. The goal, Brandman officials said, was to ensure that the program would teach skills that applied to the workplace. To help make that happen, the initial group of students all came from one of the university’s 27 employers it had sought out as partners for the degree program. College for America also draws its students from employers.

“The real entry point for competency-based education is businesses,” said Gary Brahm, Brandman’s chancellor and chief executive officer.

The university relied on industry standards to get the knowledge, skills and abilities students need to enter business jobs. It also drew from federal jobs databases to learn more about specific occupations.

On the academic side, Brandman leaned heavily on two frameworks for the new degree -- Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile and the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Both projects seek to better-define what students should know and be able to do. They also stress the importance of academically sound general-education requirements.

Flat World helped customize a platform for the university that included simulations, game-like elements and social-learning elements. The system collects data on student performance and engagement that can help faculty members and student advisers, said Etesse.

“We built that tracking factor into the software,” he said.

The university’s regional accreditor, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), last year granted its approval to the direct-assessment program. The Education Department followed last month.

Alison Kadlec is a senior vice president for Public Agenda, a New York City-based nonprofit. She is helping lead a Lumina-funded group of 18 institutions and two public systems that are experimenting with competency-based education. The group, which is dubbed the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), announced last week that it is seeking new members.

Brandman is a leader in competency-based education, Kadlec said, in part because its first focus was academic rigor.

“Institutions that are tempted to look for easy answers in the form of shiny tech solutions should take a page out of Brandman's book,” she said via email, “and focus first on quality program design and let the technology solutions emerge from that solid grounding.”

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