Competency-based education has been available to students for several decades, but there’s been a jump in interest over the past year. The White House is encouraging innovation in new delivery models. Federal agencies and foundations are weighing in with studies and grants. And think tanks and higher education associations are organizing convenings and webinars.
Meanwhile, more colleges and universities are beginning to offer competency-based education (CBE) programs and many others are considering them. There has been plenty of attention, at the 30,000-foot level, concerning the potential benefits and risks of CBE, but little has been shared about what the programs entail on the ground, particularly for traditional institutions.
Over the past year, Western Governors University (WGU) has been working with 11 community colleges in five states as they create new competency-based programs (with support from the U.S. Department of Labor’s TAACCCT programs and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). We found that faculty are creatively adapting to CBE based on their students’ needs and within their existing practices.
The colleges and programs
All these pilot programs are in information technology and most are starting with certificate programs that lead to degrees. The certificates range from computer system specialist and business software specialist to network+ and programmer training.
All the colleges provide traditional classes in brick-and-mortar settings, as well as online and hybrid courses. The group includes large and small, urban and rural colleges. They serve large numbers of working adults, part-time students and students with families (see box).
Austin Community College, in Texas
Bellevue College, near Seattle
Broward College, in south Florida
Columbia Basin College, in southeastern Washington State
Edmonds Community College, near Seattle
Ivy Tech Community College, Ft. Wayne, Indiana
Ivy Tech Community College, Lafayette, Indiana
Lone Star College - University Park, Houston
Sinclair Community College, in Dayton, Ohio
Spokane Falls Community College, in eastern Washington State
Valencia College, in central Florida
We interviewed faculty, department chairs, deans and vice presidents of instruction at the colleges about the development of CBE courses. Here are some preliminary findings:
What is competency-based education?
One critical characteristic that distinguishes CBE from other courses is that students can progress at their own pace. They progress toward course objectives and toward a certificate or degree, based on demonstrating the knowledge and skills required at each level. That is, learning becomes the constant -- and is demonstrated through mastery of learning objectives, or competencies -- and time becomes the variable. Some students can accelerate their progress as other students might take more time and practice to advance. This requires faculty to think differently about how they support learning. Course materials need to be available whenever the student is ready for them. Faculty will work with a variety of students who are learning different things at any one time.
At all 11 colleges, faculty are responsible for course development in the pilot programs, based on their college’s policies. Working mostly in teams and sometimes through processes that included industry representation, faculty modified existing course templates, enhanced course mapping to learning objectives and changed assessment processes so that students could progress at their own pace. There was a broad range, however, in how the faculty handled course development.
Prior to beginning course development, faculty at Sinclair Community College revised the curriculum to align with new Ohio standards in information technology and with industry certifications, which entailed submitting changes through the college's curriculum approval process. Faculty then worked in teams of two or three with instructional designers to develop the courses, with each template redesigned to support CBE delivery. For each course, they mapped competencies to content and assessment items to ensure that all required competencies were met. At the end of each semester, faculty review assessment results to ensure students are achieving all competencies, and adjust assessment and content items if needed.
In comparison, faculty at Columbia Basin College are making fewer modifications. This approach is about changing a delivery mode rather than developing a new curriculum. They are using existing student objectives for their courses, with existing textbook chapters serving as course units that students draw from to master the learning objectives. Each faculty member takes on all the course roles, including collecting learning materials, delivering all content and developing assessments.
The pilot programs are gathering data, and faculty will assess student outcomes and make adjustments over the next year. So far, the following elements appear to be important decision points:
The mapping of content and assessments to student learning objectives (or competencies)
Faculty at many colleges preferred the term “student learning objectives” to “competencies.” They said it was more familiar. Most existing courses already have student learning objectives, but not all content or assessments are aligned with them. At Lone Star College in Texas, faculty are working in a committee process to rebuild courses for a competency-based approach. “Mapping course objectives to student learning outcomes to achieve student success; that is not new,” said Gina Sprowl, workforce education chair and professor of accounting. “But taking the course and building it to achieve specific outcomes from the outset, that was new.”
Alan Gandy, assistant professor at Lone Star, said the idea is not to compartmentalize learning, but rather to show students how each competency relates to the overall curriculum. He said faculty are “breaking down the competencies, matching them to the assessments, so the student will see what piece they are working on in the puzzle. They’ll see the big picture, why they’re studying this and how it matches to the overall competency.”
Each program is developing its own systems for supporting student learning. For example, faculty at all the colleges are serving their traditional roles as content experts and mentors. But these roles have shifted, as they often do in online courses, from delivering lectures to providing timely academic tutoring and engagement with students individually and in groups -- online, by phone or in person. The role is closer to that of a tutor than a lecturer.
In addition, some colleges are developing new roles to support student retention. Edmonds Community College has hired a “student mentor” to contact each student weekly to check in, find out how they’re doing, provide them with feedback and advice, and direct them to additional services as needed. The mentor serves as coach, troubleshooter, strategist and enthusiast, to address each student’s challenges and encourage their progress in these self-paced programs. Some colleges use faculty in this type of role and others use student services professionals.
Why do it?
Students attending community college in the United States are diverse, and there’s no single delivery system that serves all of them well. The faculty we interviewed described CBE not as a panacea or big risk -- but rather as another way to provide students with high-quality programs that meet their needs. Tom Nielsen, vice president of instruction at Bellevue College, said of his college’s new pilot program: “This feels like the transition when we started talking about online instruction 15 to 18 years ago. Many people at that time said we couldn’t do it. To me, it’s just another evolution. It’s another choice, another avenue for our students.”
Deborah Meadows, a dean at Columbia Basin College, said she wants to target the CBE program in information technology to women: “Our distance program tends to have more women. They tend to be working and have kids, so they're looking for ways to go to school and build options for the future.”
As colleges gain experience with competency-based programs, we’ll learn more about its impacts. Meanwhile, the programs appear to be popular at some campuses. As Suzanne Marks of Bellevue College said, “Students are voting with their feet. There’s definitely demand. Students are already asking about summer classes in this model.”
Sally Johnstone is vice president for academic advancement at Western Governors University. Thad Nodine, a novelist and writer specializing in education policy, is tracking the colleges’ experiences in creating competency-based education programs.
Submitted by Stan Jones on April 18, 2014 - 3:00am
Remedial education and the instructors who provide it are critical to maintaining college access and increasing student success, but the traditional model deployed by most colleges and universities is badly broken. Complete College America’s call for reform is not about the total elimination of remediation. It is about transforming the system to ensure more students succeed.
The numbers are staggering: of the up to 60 percent of community college students who are assigned to remediation, 10 percent graduate within three years. Even given four years for a two-year degree, chances remain slim that these students will complete college. Further, 70 percent of students placed into remedial math never even attempt a college-level gateway course within two academic years.
These numbers -- which are provided by the campuses and states -- are indisputable evidence that we can no longer defend the status quo when it comes to remedial education. They are also a poignant reminder that we must not measure our success by whether students pass remedial education courses alone, but instead implement models that dramatically increase the number of students who pass gateway college-level courses and ultimately earn a degree. Doing any less would be to deny millions of Americans access to the one proven means to finding a well-paying job and entering the middle class -- a college credential.
In working with the 34 members of our Alliance of States, Complete College America has sought out the strategies and best practices that most effectively address these challenges. Most importantly, these innovations have been developed and implemented by college faculty who are passionately committed to student success.
The Accelerated Learning Program (ALP), developed by longtime community college English instructor Peter Adams, has doubled success rates for students, with 74 percent completing gateway courses in English in one semester. Likewise, the Structured Assistance program, developed by Tristan Denley when he was at Austin Peay State University, provides students who previously required remedial courses additional support in learning labs while they are enrolled in gateway college-level courses. The results have been astounding, with 78 percent of students successfully completing gateway courses in quantitative reasoning and 65 percent in statistics in a single term -- up from about 10 percent under traditional remediation models.
In these approaches, institutions are not eliminating remedial education, as some have suggested. Instead, they are shifting it from a prerequisite requirement to a corequisite, where students receive support while enrolled in the gateway courses. By delivering corequisite remediation alongside the college-level course, we eliminate attrition points -- the moments where students are most likely to fall out of the system -- and give remedial education instructors a framework in which many, many more of their students can succeed. We have found that it is not what happens in classrooms that is the problem -- but what happens from one semester to the next. Lengthening a student’s academic program by adding time and courses reduces the likelihood of their graduation. We are excited that innovators have found a way to solve the attrition problem without compromising the quality of instruction or lowering academic standards.
Around the country, efforts like corequisite remediation are gaining momentum. At a White House summit this past winter, 22 states made commitments to significantly increase the percentage of students placed into remedial education who complete gateway courses in one academic year. In addition, seven states have committed to scaling corequisite remediation statewide by 2015, ensuring that the majority of underprepared students in their states receive the academic support they need while enrolled in gateway courses.
These principles for reform are based on a recognition that our current system allows too many students to fall through the cracks -- students who want nothing more than an opportunity to chase their dreams and reach their full potential. Our work is not a devaluation of the extraordinary efforts undertaken by remedial education instructors, but a challenge for all of us to work together and empower their work with innovation and ingenuity.
At Complete College America, we believe -- and research has shown -- that far more students can succeed in college-level gateway courses than are currently placed into them. But we also know that such successes are dependent on additional support. Many students need remediation, but we have to deliver it in a way that is effective.
CCA supports any and all models that can show dramatic improvements in the number of students who successfully complete gateway math and English courses and ultimately earn a college degree. We look forward to continuing to work with faculty and higher education leaders from across the country to accomplish this critical goal.
Stan Jones is president and founder of Complete College America, a national nonprofit working to significantly increase the number of Americans with a college degree or credential of value and to close attainment gaps for traditionally underrepresented populations.
Last month the White House hosted a higher education summit to draw attention to the problem of college attainment among low-income students. The summit focused in particular on “undermatching,” in which high-achieving, low-income students fail to apply to highly selective colleges, and instead attend less competitive institutions.
It is without question that all students deserve a chance to attend a college that will give them the best shot in life, and I applaud efforts to better inform students about their choices. However, while we are rightly concerned about directing more underserved students to selective colleges, we should also recognize that sending more students to these colleges will not improve the overall quality of our higher education system.
The reality is that even in a perfectly matched world, millions of low-income, minority, first-generation, and immigrant students will continue to enroll in community colleges. If we want to improve educational outcomes among these groups of students, then we need to improve the colleges so many of them will attend.
Community colleges have been extremely successful at opening the doors to college for disadvantaged students, but thus far, they have had less success in helping them graduate. Less than 40 percent of students who start in community colleges complete a credential in six years. The success rates are worse for low-income and minority students.
So how can community colleges deliver better quality for their students? It will not be easy. Over the last 15 years, faculty and administrators have worked tirelessly to implement reforms in teaching and support services. These efforts have failed to raise completion rates.
A critical reason for this disappointing outcome is that reform initiatives have focused too narrowly on one aspect of the student experience, such as entry, remedial education or the first semester. While many initiatives have led to some success for targeted students, these improvements have been too small and too short-lived to affect overall college performance.
Research conducted by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University’s Teachers College and others makes abundantly clear that improving services like developmental education is necessary but not sufficient: the entire student community college experience must be strengthened.
Some community colleges are beginning to recognize this imperative, and are entering a new phase of far more comprehensive and transformative reform. In particular, some are at the forefront of implementing what CCRC terms the guided pathways model.
That approach responds to the fact that most community college students need far more structure and guidance; it attends to all aspects of the student experience, from preparation and intake to completion. The model includes robust services to help students choose career goals and majors. It features the integration of developmental education into college-level courses and the organization of the curriculum around a limited number of broad subject areas that allows for coherent programs of study. And, importantly, it stresses the strong, ongoing collaboration between faculty, advisers and staff.
Initiatives such as the Gates-funded Completion by Design and Lumina's Finish Faster are advancing such comprehensive reforms by helping colleges and college systems create clear course pathways within programs of study that lead to degrees, transfer and careers.
The new Guttman Community College at the City University of New York (CUNY) -- perhaps the most ambitious example of a comprehensive approach to the community college student experience -- incorporates many elements of the guided pathways model. And CUNY’s ASAP program, which like Guttman takes a holistic approach to student success, has significantly improved associate degree completion rates.
Ambitious and comprehensive reforms are rare for good reason -- they are risky and difficult to implement. But they also offer the possibility of transformative improvement. Our frustration with the progress of reform in community colleges is not because skilled and dedicated people have not tried; rather, the reforms themselves have been self-limiting.
President Obama has rightly asked the nation to attend with renewed urgency to the problem of college attainment among low-income students. But the focus on undermatching is driven partly by a perception that the distribution of quality among colleges and universities is and will remain fixed.
This need not be so. Bold, large-scale reforms can improve institutions across the higher education system so that no matter where our neediest students enroll, they are ensured the best possible chance of success.
Thomas Bailey is director of the Community College Research Center at Teacher's College Columbia University.