Stephanie Malley packs into her days working a full-time job, raising four children, and pursuing a college degree. She found the traditional online path slow going, both because of the cost and the structure of the classes.
Then she found College for America at the nonprofit Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) in Manchester. CFA partners with employers, including Ms. Malley's, to offer low-cost, competency-based associate's degrees to their employees.
Instead of locking into at least two years of classes to earn credits, students work on projects at their own pace, submitting work to trained reviewers – many of them faculty members – until they've mastered all 120 defined "competencies."
Malley expects to complete her degree in less than a year – about three times faster than she could have with traditional online learning – and then go on to earn a bachelor's degree, perhaps at CFA.
Advocates of competency-based learning see it as a potential game changer for higher education. The approach can make college degrees more affordable, and at the same time can assure employers that the graduates they're hiring have mastered a defined set of ideas and skills.
It could hold broad appeal for many of the 93 million Americans ages 25 to 64 who have attended high school or even taken some college courses, but do not have a college degree.
"There's a missing middle in our system – how do you get skills between high school and a four-year degree?" says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
CFA launched in January with about 500 students from 25 companies in its free pilot program. When fees kick in this fall, employees at the fast-growing number of CFA partner companies will have a chance to earn an associate's degree for as little as $2,500 a year.
So far, CFA is open only to workers of partner companies, but it is the first competency-based degree program that the US Department of Education has approved for federal financial aid, such as Pell grants. Several other programs have applied and are being considered case by case.
"The work you are doing in competency-based assessment ... is a completely new and innovative model," Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter said in June during a visit with CFA students, staff, and employer partners.
The online Western Governors University has been offering competency-based education for about 15 years. Other such projects can be found at Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin System.
At CFA, competencies are grouped in areas such as communication, quantitative skills, ethics and social responsibility, teamwork, and science/society/culture. Students show proficiency via projects that integrate skills, such as creating a marketing plan or writing a memo evaluating potential vending machines for a hypothetical employee lounge.
As for Malley, she loves that the learning "tasks" make subjects ranging from anthropology to economics relevant to her.
"As I'm doing these tasks, you really can relate it to the whole health-care industry," says the manager at Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Manchester. "I can strategize better. I'm more confident," she says.
"There are no grades, but there's no sliding by," says SNHU President Paul LeBlanc. "What employers love about this is that we're crystal clear about the claims we make about what students know."