Several community colleges in Texas are adopting competency-based education (CBE) as part of the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate (TAB) program.
TAB calls for institutions of higher education to launch accelerated bachelor’s degrees with the goal of getting students to complete faster and thus save money on tuition.
South Texas College (STC) and eight universities were selected by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in 2014 to participate in TAB. STC was chosen because it already offered four bachelor’s degrees.
Under TAB, students pay a set fee per term and can progress through as many online modules as they want during that term. As a result, their cost for higher education can drop by nearly half.
TAB “upends traditional higher education,” says Kelly Carper Polden, assistant director of external relations for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. “Traditionally, time is fixed and learning is the variable. But with the competency-based Texas Affordable Baccalaureate degrees, learning is fixed and time is the variable.”
Success at South Texas
STC offers five bachelor’s degrees – the maximum allowed for Texas community colleges – in organizational leadership, computer and informational technology, medical and health services management, and nursing.
The bachelor of applied science in organizational leadership, launched in collaboration with Texas A&M University-Commerce in 2014, has the most fully implemented CBE model. More than 500 students have completed that CBE-based degree, says Ali Esmaeili, dean of math, science and bachelor programs.
At STC, faculty spent 13 months developing a 90-credit hour program. About half the credits are general education courses and the other half are online electives for which students can get credit for prior learning or other training, Esmaeili says.
Each of those courses has a specific set of competencies that students must master. For each competency, students take an orientation session and a pre-test. If they get a score of 80 percent or higher, they take a post-test. If they score below 80 percent, they are given instructional materials and retake the test. If they pass it, they can move on to the next competency. Students must pass all competencies with a score of 80 percent or more to complete the course.
In another key component of the TAB program, STC officials help students get credits for prior learning and experiences, such as training taken in the military. Advising staff also help students transfer to a graduate program.
Nearly 80 percent of students completed the organizational leadership bachelor’s degree in one year or less, 94.7 percent took two years and 95.5 percent completed the degree within three years. A highly motivated student could finish a bachelor’s degree in 18 months, even if they hadn’t had any prior learning, Esmaeili says. A student who was in dual enrollment in high school or had credit for prior learning could do it in a year.
STC’s accelerated, competency-based bachelor’s degree programs have been so successful that the college plans to expand the model to associate degree and certificate programs, Esmaeili says. He adds the college also will establish a CBE office.
“We hope one day we’ll have 100 percent of our students in competency-based programs,” Esmaeili says.
An eye on students’ cost
In 2017, the state coordinating board funded the development of an all-online CBE bachelor of applied technology degree in computer information technology, with STC and Austin Community College (ACC) partnering on the project. All of the existing CBE courses at Austin’s associate of applied science degree will seamlessly transfer into STC’s CBE bachelor’s degree.
Last year, the coordinating board expanded TAB to include a partnership of Houston Community College (HCC) and the University of Houston-Downtown. A CBE curriculum for an associate of applied sciences degree in business management at HCC will be transferable to a bachelor’s degree in applied public administration and leadership at the university.
ACC and the Dallas County Community College District also offer some CBE courses that are not part of the TAB program, says James Fountain, executive director of the Institute of Competency-Based Education based at Texas A&M Commerce. The institute is encouraging as many CBE programs as possible in the state, with the goal of driving down the cost of higher education, he says.
Tuition plus room and board now cost $70,000 to $80,000 at some of the state’s regional colleges, Fountain says. “That’s not feasible. If we don’t do something, it’s going to implode.”
According to Fountain, CBE is one tool for helping Texas reach its 60X30 initiative, which calls for at least 60 percent of Texans age 25 to 34 to have a college degree or certificate by 2030.
Students in the CBE-based organizational leadership and criminal justice programs at Texas A&M Commerce can complete a bachelor’s degree for less than $7,000, Fountain says. Studies show those students do as well as or better than those in traditional courses.
Patience pays off
Launching a CBE program is difficult. For example, once colleges get the faculty and curriculum lined up, they often don’t bring in the operational departments, such as admissions and finance, early enough. “That slows the process down, and that’s where the institute can help,” he says.
The institute held its first State of CBE symposium in July with a higher-than-expected turnout and is developing a CBE bank with a collection of competencies and online educational resources linked to various courses that colleges can share.
A case study of the CBE program at Texas A&M University-Commerce, published earlier this year in the Journal of Competency-Based Education, found it takes about five years for the investment in CBE to pay off.
“These programs are viable moneymakers once you get them to scale,” Fountain says. “For us, there was an enormous cost upfront. We were over a million dollars in the red during the first three-and-a-half years,” but now the program is in the black.
“This is a growing national movement,” Fountain says, noting that about 500 colleges and universities nationwide have CBE programs or in the process of creating them.