A coalition of consumer groups, legal aid organizations and unions object to the state of New York joining an agreement that would change how colleges offering distance education courses in the state would be regulated. As coalition members asserted in an Inside Higher Ed article, the state would be ceding its authority to other states. Students would be left with no protection from predatory colleges, and it would make it easier for “bad actors to take advantage of students and harder for states to crack down on them.”
That all sounds ominous. It would be, if it were true.
Even in the digital era, the regulation of educational institutions is left to each state. The resulting array of requirements confuses both students and institutional faculty and staff. The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) was created to apply consistent review standards across the states. An institution approved in its home state is eligible to enroll students (within limits) in any other SARA member state. As of this writing, 36 states have joined in a little over two years. That number may approach 45 by the end of 2016.
SARA means now there is a consistently applied set of regulations over distance education when students from one state take courses from an institution in another SARA state. Chief critic Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former official at the U.S. Department of Education, cites Iowa as proof that “some states have discovered they can’t add more qualifications,” as if that were a surprise. Reciprocity agreements depend upon consistency. If Iowa wishes to change a policy, there is a process for regulators in the state to suggest a change. States enter into the agreement openly knowing that consistency is a requirement.
Currently, many states -- notably including New York -- have no regulations in place to protect their in-state students who enroll in courses from many out-of-state colleges. SARA’s critics depict New York as “a national leader in protecting its citizens from unfair business practices.” If a college has no other physical presence in New York other than enrolling students in an online course, it is not regulated and those students are not protected. The state has not allocated any funds to regulate the estimated hundreds of colleges from throughout the country currently serving online students in the state. Asking each state to regulate the institutions headquartered in their state regardless of where they serve students is a much more reasonable solution. Put another way, SARA increases the amount of regulatory oversight of distance education, but does it in a manner more relevant to today’s economy.
To be fair, New York has been aggressive in pursuing bad actors in the for-profit education sector, as evidenced by its $10.25 million settlement with Career Education Corporation. It is worth noting, however, that the lawsuit was largely based on brick-and-mortar schools that have nothing to do with SARA. In addition, this action was brought by the New York attorney general’s office and was not the result of education-based regulation. There is a relevant section in the SARA policy stating that nothing precludes “a state from using its laws of general application to pursue action against an institution that violates those laws” and another stating that “nothing precludes the state in which the complaining person is located from also working to resolve the complaint.”
The reality of SARA hardly qualifies as “ceding the ability to guard its citizens against abusive practices,” as a Century Foundation letter objecting to New York signing the SARA agreement claims.
What would be lost if New York were not to sign the SARA agreement? There is certainly a downside for institutions offering distance education courses and programs for out-of-state students. It might surprise readers of the letter, but fully 70 percent of students who take all of their courses at a distance do so from public and nonprofit institutions. Institutions like Empire State College, a longtime leader in distance education that is part of the SUNY system. Furthermore, the large for-profit institutions referenced in the article have the budget and history of obtaining state-by-state approval already. It is the smaller-profile nonprofits that have the most difficulty in obtaining authorization to serve students in different states.
A reciprocity agreement between Massachusetts and Connecticut is cited as an alternative. As best we can tell, it allows each state to continue using its own current regulations. This is not reciprocity and does not improve the consumer protection landscape for students or institutions.
Were New York to avoid signing the agreement, students who live in the state would end up with fewer choices, primarily from fewer nonprofit institutions that can operate there. Under SARA, New York students actually would have more consumer protection than currently exists as well as regulatory support for any complaint process, including from in-state agencies. Additionally, states systematically working in concert through SARA will more quickly find and deal with institutions that treat students poorly. This is far better than hypothetical, unfunded regulatory oversight by New York trying to operate independently from any other state.
New York has the opportunity to sign an agreement that would expand the regulatory oversight of distance education programs, would leave the state with the same ability to go after bad actors as they have done in the past and would increase choices for resident students -- particularly working adults -- seeking to get a valuable degree that is only enabled by distance education. It would be a mistake to let a complaint based on hypotheticals and misrepresentations of reality derail this progress.
Phil Hill is co-publisher of the e-Literate blog, co-producer of e-Literate TV and partner at MindWires Consulting. Russ Poulin is director of policy and analysis at WCET (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies), which is a division of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
Nonprofit Zenith Education Group is consolidating or closing 10 more campuses of the former Corinthian Colleges. The chain lost $100 million last year and is making changes to its business model, curriculum and leadership.
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.