Expanding competency-based education

Joe May (left), chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District in Texas, and other panel speakers are greeted by Sen. Lamar Alexander (right) before his committee’s hearing on innovation in higher education. (Photo: Matthew Dembicki)

A Senate committee that is preparing to rework the nation’s main higher education law focused on competency-based education (CBE) at a hearing Thursday where it explored innovative programs designed to serve a growing number of nontraditional college students.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee also heard about successes with dual enrollment, especially with the Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD) in Texas, which has partnered with 31 high schools through early college academies.

Senators on the committee were particularly interested in CBE as a way to help students attain the skills they need for available jobs at a pace that works for them — and how it could potentially save time and money for both students and taxpayers. Committee Chair Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) seemed open to testing CBE through a demonstration project — an idea proposed Deborah Bushway, a CBE consultant and former U.S. Education Department official.

Expanding CBE has challenges, she told the committee. First, there needs to be a standard definition of CBE across postsecondary education and its regulatory bodies. Second, CBE programs would have to be integrated in the federal financial aid system, which currently is centered on credit-hour programs. Both could be addressed as Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act.

Short-term Pell

While highlighting DCCCD’s dual-enrollment efforts — which allow high school students to simultaneously take high school and college-level courses — Chancellor Joe May told the committee that those successes are currently not captured in federal data or credited to participating institutions. Better data would help local and national policymakers determine promising practices, he said.

“Currently, these students are not fully counted toward our graduation and completion rates,” May said.

May also encouraged the committee to allow students to use Pell grants for short-term career and education programs — a provision that the House education committee has included in its bill to reauthorize HEA. Such flexibility would allow workers to earn a college degree an opportunity to improve their skills and their lives. It would also help employers connect with skilled workers needed for available jobs.

“Our strategy should be to grow and not import talent because we cannot export poverty,” May said.

Atypical partnerships

The speakers at the hearing also noted various partnerships that they leveraged to improve student success. DCCCD, for example, was selected by the U.S. Education Department to test an innovative postsecondary program that it developed with Straightline, a non-accredited, non-institutional provider of postsecondary education. The program, which also includes guidance from two accreditors to ensure its quality, helps students earn an associate degree in business and criminal justice. Students can earn more than half of their degree through online courses, and they are eligible to receive federal student aid.

Linking loan repayment to a paycheck

The committee also heard about City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) and Boston’s Match Beyond, a nonprofit that helps low-income students earn quality college degrees at affordable prices to attain good jobs. Aside from quality academics, both programs focus on addressing other barriers that prevent students from succeeding. Match Beyond includes one-on-one coaches for students to help them with enrollment, academics and careers. ASAP helps students with tuition waivers, textbooks and transportation, providing its students with unlimited subway passes.

The programs have shown promising results. After two years of work at Match Beyond, nearly three-quarters of its 256 students have finished or are on track to finish an associate degree. Meanwhile, ASAP has served 33,800 students and has an average three-year graduation rate of 53 percent, compared to 25 percent for similar students.

A few senators also highlighted programs in their states. Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah) noted the online, multi-state Western Governors University, as well as Salt Lake Community College’s efforts with open educational resources, which can drastically reduce the cost of books and other materials for students. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) highlighted Georgia State University’s Panther Program, which uses predictive analytics to intervene before students drop out.

As the committee heard about these programs, members would occasionally stress the importance of providing safeguards to ensure rigorous programming.

“I think the key to innovation is to have better data,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts).

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
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