National Edition

College credit doesn't depend on seat time anymore

Published: Monday, Oct. 14 2013 11:50 p.m. MDT

Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America doesn’t offer courses or give grades. It doesn’t even have professors, as we know them. Students earn an associate of arts degree through the online program by showing mastery of 120 “competencies” in such areas as communication and critical and creative thinking. This isn’t your father’s college. Or yours, either.

Education models that are based on skills acquisition, and not on credit hours, are about to become more common in higher education. In March, College for America received regional accreditation, the gold standard of educational quality. And in April, the school was granted eligibility for federal student aid. It is the first school not using the credit hour system to receive both accreditation and federal aid eligibility.

Another online university, Capella University, also uses a “competency-based” program; it has also received both approvals. Traditional brick-and-mortar schools such as Northern Arizona University and University of Wisconsin are seeking approvals for their own programs, also based on learning outcomes instead of seat time. These competency programs will also be online. More universities are certain to follow.

Rare bipartisan support, and a warming attitude toward innovation at the U.S. Department of Education, signal that competency-based higher education is gaining a foothold. It could transform the way many students earn college degrees. And that could result in a faster, less-expensive path to college degrees for some students, though some of the traditional advantages of the traditional college experience could be lost. And, the new programs are closely aligned with workplace needs.

The new climate of federal encouragement toward college programs based on direct assessment of competency marks a “tipping point,” said Cathy Sandeen, vice president of educational attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education. The nation's need for greater attainment of post-secondary training is spurring educational innovations, she said. Competency-based education is emerging as an avenue toward greater educational attainment that might be replicated on a large scale at relatively low cost.

Proving competency

Western Governors University was the first U.S. university to receive accreditation and student aid eligibility for an online program that gives credit for past experiences and lets students move through at their own pace. Founded in 1997, WGU was accredited by the Interregional Accrediting Committee in four different regions in 2003. Unlike the newcomers, though, WGU’s curriculum is built around the traditional credit-hour system. For-profit online schools, such as the University of Phoenix, use the credit hour system, too. At most of these, students hear online lectures from a professor and move through traditional homework assignments and tests within specific timeframes.

College of America, a private not-for-profit school, is different. Projects replace courses, and students demonstrate mastery of workplace skills instead of earning grades. The curriculum is organized around 120 competencies that show future employers what graduates know and can do. Students move through at their own pace. Examples of competencies include:

Can define and use marketing terminology and concepts

Can distinguish fact from opinion

Can convey information by creating charts and graphs

The intention is to ensure that students learn relevant workforce skills in such areas as communication, collaboration and critical and creative thinking. The competencies are developed through real-world projects such as developing a business. That might include thinking critically, writing effectively, building spreadsheets and collaborating with others, said Cathrael Kazin, College for America’s chief academic officer.

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