Higher Education

Competency catches on at community college

Competency-based education isn’t an experiment at Bellevue College near Seattle, writes Paul Bradley on Community College Week. The college’s first CBE program — a business software specialist certificate program — has proven very popular.

“The students seem to love it,” said Tom Nielsen, the college’s vice president for instruction. “We are seeing that most students are going through their course sequences faster.”

Western Governors University, which pioneered CBE, is helping 11 community colleges develop their own CBE degree and certificate programs. The U.S. Department of Labor and the Gates Foundation are funding the initiative.

Competency-based education flips “the time-mastery relationship,” Sally M. Johnstone, vice president for academic advancement at WGU, wrote in Educause Review:

In a classroom-based model, all students start and end their learning experience at the same time. During a term of study, some students will master most of the materials and earn high grades; others will master less of the material and earn lower grades; and still others will master only about half the material and receive a failing grade. So, while these failing students know a considerable portion of the material, their only option is to take the entire class over again. This is discouraging to students, and some might well give up on the whole higher-education experience.

In CBE programs, students work toward mastery at their own pace, within the constraints of financial aid, institutional, and state policies. When students demonstrate mastery of the skills and knowledge designated by a course’s faculty, they pass the course. Students can progress through courses either sequentially or take several at a time, depending on their study habits and time constraints.”

Community colleges have “close links with employers,” says Thad Nodine, who’s following the project. “Austin Community College has over 100 employer partners.”

Adapting the WGU model isn’t easy, says Nielsen, the Bellevue College vice-president.

Under the CBE model, assessments determine whether a student has mastered a specific competency before moving on to the next one. But some states require that colleges issue a letter grade. Reconciling the two can be an arduous task.

Colleges also must carefully craft the CBE programs to ensure that competencies are valid and robust and that diverse students studying at their own pace receive strong academic support. Academic support needs to be flexible, Johnstone said. Learning resources must be available anytime. Assessments must be secure and reliable, based on the expertise of industry and academic subject-matter experts.

Four Washington state community colleges are working on CBE certificates, but next year the stakes will be raised. The state will launch an online, competency-based associate degree in business at 13 of the state’s 34 community and technical college. The degree program will include English composition, accounting, economics, business calculus, public speaking, political science, sociology and statistics. Fast-paced students will be able to complete the degree in 18 months.

Competency-based education works well for working adults, writes Julian L. Alssid, chief workforce strategist at College for America.

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Joanne Jacobs

Joanne Jacobs, formerly of the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, is a freelance journalist who blogs at joannejacobs.com. See Archive

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