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Adult learners stand in a hallway talking to one another

Competency-based education provides a more flexible course structure, which allows nontraditional and adult learners to set their own pace when completing a degree.

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Before community colleges became training grounds for people wanting to work in trade jobs or as technicians in specialized fields that didn’t require four-year degrees, students mostly learned through apprenticeships and vocational programs or got on-the-job training.

Employers now increasingly rely on community colleges to train and certify workers for these positions; they also prefer or require workers to have degrees.

“If you look back in time, how did automotive technicians learn to do their trade? They didn’t sit in a classroom for 16 weeks, take a bunch of Scantron tests, and then all of a sudden, they can fix the carburetor,” said Randy Beach, faculty curriculum committee chair at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Calif. “They were on the ground; they had their hands in the work.”

Southwestern students and their peers at seven other California community colleges may have more opportunities for this type of hands-on learning by participating in a pilot program based on an alternative degree model known as competency-based education, or CBE. It focuses less on traditional classes or grades and more on skill building and mastery, through real-life scenarios, hands-on demonstrations and simulations, allowing students to earn a degree at their own pace by exhibiting competency in their field of study. The program is designed for adult learners and other nontraditional students who might not succeed in standard courses, or who already have certain skills and experience and want a faster path to earn a degree.

“Although a student can get an A on a test, that doesn’t mean that they’re actually competent or have the ability to do the task,” said Brian Palmiter, an automotive technology professor at Southwestern College. “So when the idea of a CBE program was presented, I was all about it.”

The goal of CBE is to make college more accessible by providing a greater level of flexibility and individualization in how students are taught and, more importantly, in how they learn.

A growing number of institutions across the country are pursuing CBE programs as the population of traditional college-age students shrinks and efforts grow to enroll more nontraditional students and improve their academic outcomes by better preparing them for a skills-based job market.

“California community colleges are on a path to help students achieve their educational goals faster, more efficiently and equitably,” Melissa Villarin, a spokesperson for California Community College Chancellor’s Office, said in an email. “We need to consider alternative methods of how we deliver learning to provide the flexibility students need to balance their lives.”

The eight participating California colleges were each provided with up to $515,000, to be used over the course of four years for program and curriculum development before they start enrolling students. The state appropriated $10 million for the pilot effort, Villarin said.

The proposed areas of study include hands-on trades such as auto services and culinary arts as well as fields such as kinesiology, business administration and early childhood education.

Before the pilot programs officially launch at the individual institutions, the colleges will have to overcome obstacles such as deciding how to measure and maintain academic progress, equitably manage faculty payment, and distribute financial aid in a nontraditional, self-paced program.

The goal was for students to start enrolling in the pilot programs in fall 2024, but administrators at several participating institutions said that timeline may be overly ambitious and noted the U.S. Department of Education’s long program approval process. The officials said a spring or fall 2025 start date was more likely.

Working Backward

The Competency-Based Education Network, or C-BEN, a research and consulting group, is assisting the California Community Colleges in developing the system’s new programs. C-BEN describes the alternative degree model as a “backwards design approach” to teaching and learning.

Lisa McIntyre-Hite, executive vice president and chief operating officer at C-BEN Solutions, the organization’s consulting service, explained that before deciding on this method of instruction, college administrators and faculty must first decide which “competencies” they want a student to master and what kind of “performance-based assessment” to use to measure the student’s ability to apply those competencies.

“All the things that we all equate with a traditional class come last,” McIntyre-Hite said. “It’s a curriculum, educational framework and philosophy that enables personalized, transparent and relevant learning that is flexible and designed around the lives of learners.”

“What the skills-based economy is going to demand of higher ed is that we are graduating competent learners,” she added.

Students in traditional academic programs are routinely required to complete courses even if they have already mastered some of the skills and subject matter taught in the course. And if they didn’t master a particular skill or pass a test, it could mean having to retake the class, McIntyre-Hite said.

Students can set their own pace using the CBE model and spend more or less time on certain course topics as long as they meet the required competencies in a given time frame, which varies from program to program.

“In a current model, you can only learn this much in 16 weeks, because that’s the semester. And if you learn all the content, you have to stop,” said Amber Garrison Duncan, executive vice president of C-BEN. “That’s not people’s lives … In a CBE program, we let them keep going, giving them all the room they need to flex forward as much as they can or want to.”

Complex and Exciting

While most of the participating colleges have established the framework for their curricula, they are now developing plans for providing student services, including aligning asynchronous modules with a traditional academic calendar, deciding how to set tuition for courses that are not based on a traditional credit-hour model and determining how to award financial aid and create a transcript that reflects a student’s accomplishments, among other things.

“The chancellor’s office doesn’t have a process for those things. So we’re developing them as we’re going,” said Garrick Grace, dean of innovation at Merced College, which is piloting a CBE program in early childhood education. “Our system has a rich history in how we do certain processes, and we are questioning all of those processes.”

Grace said developing the program has been overwhelming and complex, but exciting nonetheless.

“There’s so many different models, and so we’re thinking through what model will work best,” he said. “That’s really what the point of the pilot is: to figure out what we need, and once these eight colleges kind of make a system, it makes things a lot easier.”

Other challenges include ensuring a stable technological infrastructure, determining a model for faculty payment in a system not based on time and navigating the bureaucracy of approval processes for new programs.

Most of the colleges’ CBE programs have been approved by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges and the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. They are now preparing to submit applications for program approval to the Department of Education, a process that could take up to nine months, according to faculty members and administrators leading CBE development in California.

“The holdup is we can’t really market the program until we have federal approval,” Grace said. “We can put together the first cohort pretty quickly once we have approval, but if, say, our approval doesn’t come through until August 2024, to offer courses literally in August would be almost impossible.”

A Growing National Trend

Although the process of designing and implementing a CBE program is relatively uncharted territory, the California-based pilot program is not the first of its kind. Similar alternative programs are being introduced at higher ed institutions across the country, and some also offer other credentials besides college degrees.

According to the latest survey on CBE by the American Institutes for Research, a nonpartisan organization that conducts behavioral and social science research, 13 percent of about 500 institutions that responded already have CBE programs in place, while 47 percent are in the process of adopting programs and another 26 percent are at least interested in the prospect of doing so. The survey tallied a total of 851 undergraduate and 206 graduate CBE programs.

The Kentucky Community and Technical College System, for example, is considered a national model for implementing CBE. It has published a comprehensive guide for other state higher ed systems interested in making the transition. Texas A&M University at Commerce has also utilized the model. Other efforts driven by state governments and other groups, including the Alabama Talent Triad and the Navajo Nation Talent Marketplace, are working to create an ecosystem and job market that support the growth of competency-based education by promoting skills-based hiring.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing is also increasingly emphasizing CBE in its requirements for all baccalaureate, master’s and doctor of nursing practice programs nationwide. While the association doesn’t require nursing schools to organize curriculum according to competencies instead of by course, it does encourage them to ensure all competencies listed in the association’s “Essentials” are addressed and assessed.

Shelly Blair, dean of innovative learning at Coastline College, just south of Los Angeles, described the institution’s efforts to develop a CBE program in management as “disrupting the system” to allow for greater equity and access in higher ed.

“For so long, we have asked students to adapt to our system. And so we have decided, we’re going to break the system, and we’re going to rebuild it,” Blair said. “We’re going to put students at the center of it instead of trying to make it work the other way around.”

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