A faster, cheaper way to go through college – and emerge 'competent'?

Advocates of competency-based learning see it as a potential game changer for higher education. The approach can make college degrees more affordable, and can assure employers that graduates have mastered a defined set of ideas and skills.

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."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.