Credit for What You Know, Not How Long You Sit

By Paul LeBlanc

Zach Sherman earned an associate degree from us in just under 100 days. He did in about three months what many students struggle to do in two years in full-time degree programs. Zach works the graveyard shift at a ConAgra food plant in Troy, Ohio, and he was in many ways an exceptional case: unencumbered with family responsibilities, willing to put in several hours a day, a voracious reader possessing a keen mind. With the promise of a job promotion, he also had incentive. While Zach was our first and speediest graduate, he is not alone. SNHU’s College for America (CfA) program, launched last January, has a handful of other graduates who completed degrees in under six months, and many more on pace to join them.

How can this be? CfA made history in April 2013 when it became the first degree program to be approved under the direct assessment of learning provisions in Title IV. For the first time, federal financial aid can pay for what students actually learn, not how long they sat in a classroom. The credit hour is the Higgs-Boson Particle of higher education, permeating all we do: how we apportion knowledge and learning, build curricula, assign workload, allocate classrooms, define degree levels, and pay out approximately $150 billion in federal financial aid funds every year. We have built our industry around an artifact that is pretty good at telling us is how long someone sat, but not what they learned. The CfA program reverses that relationship, making time flexible and learning non-negotiable.

CfA’s associate degree is based on 120 competencies—“can-do” statements—and students work to demonstrate mastery. There is no sliding by with a C in first-year writing or a B in college math. Students have “mastered” or “not yet,” and while there is no guarantee of success, the alternative is not failure. So if a student needs 45 weeks to master the writing competency, why would we think a 14-­week composition class would suffice? Conversely, if someone uses complicated math at work all the time and can demonstrate mastery of the math competency in a week, why make them sit for a semester. Competencies are demonstrated through projects, graded by qualified faculty (though there is no instructional faculty “teaching” students since there are no classes or courses), and range from basic skills to soft skills, like working in teams or giving and taking instruction, to higher-order critical skills required in activities like creating a virtual art gallery or arguing a question such as, “Is torture ever justified?”

We designed the program by harnessing the three macro-level forces reshaping higher education today: disaggregation, technology and a shift from inputs to outcomes. We unpacked faculty roles, using academics to design competencies, curate the learning content and assess mastery. Instruction and learning support leverages peer-to-peer models, access to expertise present in students’ lives, and an assigned advisor. Accountability comes not from deadlines and the grade book, but from each student’s “accountability partner,” that person who will stay on top of them (often a friend, family member or work mate) in conjunction with their advisor, possessing the same backgrounds and skills of our advisors across the university. Using open-education resources and the latest technology, we have been able to drive down cost while building a powerful learning platform. The result is that the cost of the program is just $1,250 every six months. We expect students to routinely complete a degree for $2,500 or less. For the adult learners we serve—often working at or near minimum wage and supporting families—we have removed cost as a barrier to education. Our focus on clearly defined outcomes, with no sliding by or grade inflation, also ensures a high level of quality, and large-scale employers have taken notice.

With about 400 students enrolled since January, we are learning some things:

  • While students can go slow or go fast, keeping on pace (whatever pace is right for them) is critical. Thus the importance of scheduling CfA time, and scheduling may be one of the most important things we teach during the orientation.
  • It matters to our students that their enrollment matters to others. It is thus hard to overstate the importance of the advisors, who stay with their students throughout the program. Students also want to know who else in their workplace is enrolled. It is a powerful motivator when a supervisor or manager: a) points them in the direction of the program and b) checks in and celebrates their progress.
  • Access to technology is not an issue per se, but access to up-to-date technology can be. Some employers help by making workplace technology available. We are piloting the use of Google Chromebooks, which can be had for under $250. Because our cost of attendance is so far below the maximum annual Pell Grant, we are optimistic that we can get the necessary technology into the hands of students.
  • Employers and workers “get” competencies. It’s actually how they think about the world: What can Joe or Sally do? What are they good at? Where do they need work? It’s traditional academics who seem to struggle with the notion.

For those students we serve—working adults in lower-paying positions who seek an “on-ramp” to better and more stable work, advancement, and more college at prices they can afford—CfA is a powerful new pathway to success.

Can competency-based education (CBE) programs work in every field for every kind of student? We don’t know yet. While CBE programs have been around for a long time, this new generation of programs, untethered to the credit-hour and structured in dramatically different ways, represents an emerging movement still without a common nomenclature, taxonomy or principles of best practice. But many more such programs are coming, and we recently received a $1.8 million Lumina Foundation grant to convene 20 or more institutions preparing to launch CBE programs.

If we who champion CBE models are right about their efficacy, they stand to represent a more dramatic paradigm shift than MOOCs (which reify in many ways traditional courses) and adaptive learning technology. When we get absolutely clear about the claims we make for student learning and back it up with robust ways of knowing, we can be a lot less worried about traditional inputs and start to re-invent higher education in ways that address the perfect storm crisis of sustainability, cost, access and quality.

Paul LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University.


Related NEJHE (Connection) Posts by Paul LeBlanc:

Reaching Beyond Elite International Students
The Challenge of Innovation: A Call for Risk-Taking in Academia (with Clayton Christensen)
Masters of the Internet





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