Competency-based education may be a particularly good fit for training early childhood educators. Photo by Tina Floersch on Unsplash

Welcome back. This week’s issue explores whether competency-based education may finally get its moment, ideas for spending requirements in short-term training and online education for veterans, and Eloy Ortiz Oakley’s new gig. (Sign up here to get this newsletter.)

CBE’s Moment?

Advocates have been touting the promise of competency-based education for a long time. They argue that the delivery method’s flexibility is good for working students, and that the focus on mastering skills is attractive to employers.

Yet with a few exceptions—most notably Western Governors University, which told me this week that more than 49,000 students graduated from its fully online and competency-based programs during the last academic year—CBE programs remain mostly boutique offerings, and account for a small slice of higher education.

Marketing competency-based education to students is a challenge, experts say. Some programs have struggled with price points and business plans. And conflicting regulatory signals have helped slow the modality’s growth, particularly its more aggressive form—direct assessment—which is untethered from the credit-hour standard.

Even so, many who work on competency-based education think it may be poised to gain substantial ground—for real this time—due in part to the pandemic’s disruption to higher education and labor markets. And new data from the American Institutes for Research could help fuel that optimism.

AIR’s third annual National Survey of Postsecondary Competency-Based Education, conducted in 2020 and released today, found that 128 U.S. institutions offered at least one competency-based education program over the past three years, for a total of 1,057 programs.

Roughly 82 percent of the 488 colleges and universities that responded to this year’s survey expect the number of competency-based programs in the U.S. to increase in the next five years. And almost half of responding institutions (47 percent) reported being in the process of adopting competency-based education, across nearly all categories of institutions, with 13 percent currently operating at least one such program.

“Many colleges are optimistic that CBE can play a role in solving many of the core challenges of higher education, including access and equity, completion, cost, and quality,” says Kelle Parsons, senior researcher at AIR and the report’s author. 

However, respondents pointed to barriers to adoption, which also were reflected in previous versions of the survey. Top-cited hurdles included internal business systems, federal student aid regulations, start-up costs, and other priority initiatives.

Early Childhood Education

As Elin Johnson reports in Work Shift, competency-based education may be a particularly good fit for training early childhood educators. Many states face a severe shortage of workers in the space, due in part to strict licensing requirements, demanding jobs, and low pay.

Johnson writes that a growing number of colleges and states are rethinking pathways into the field.

Illinois, for example, is examining the compensation of early childhood educators. And 76 Illinois colleges and universities are partnering with the state and its licensing body to create standardized competency-based early childhood education credentials, which are designed to create a stacked pathway from some college credit up to a master’s degree.

“We are working very hard to help employers, institutions of higher education, advocates, funders, and other stakeholders see the potential of competency-based approaches for solving problems they encounter,” Stephanie Bernoteit, executive deputy director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, told Johnson.

Movement in Maine

The University of Maine at Presque Isle has long been sold on competency-based education. The rural university, which enrolls about 1,500 students, in 2014 dropped grades for proficiencies across its curriculum.

Ray Rice, the university’s president, says its strategy has shifted from offering competency-based education as an additional delivery method within “legacy” academic and curricular structures, to one where CBE will have its own academic and administrative unit.

The university is creating the new College of Degree Completion and Credentialing to meet strong interest from students, particularly working adults with at least 30 college credits, and because the unit needs to function in fundamentally different ways, including its academic calendar.

Presque Isle plans to add self-paced, online bachelor’s degrees to its competency-based offerings, as well as a two-year program and several graduate credentials. The university also is working across the University of Maine system to convert programming from other institutions to CBE.

The Kicker

Rice says he anticipates growth of competency-based education nationally, driven in part by changing student expectations:

Learners are now more desirous of programs that meet the needs of their workplace and domestic/personal situations—not ones in which they need to adapt to the patterns and structure of a traditional curriculum. We have heard directly (including myself individually) from students that they spoke with their employers about CBE education and that the support and encouragement from their employers was a major factor in their decision to enroll in our programs.

Oakley Heads to D.C.

The chancellor of the California community college system, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, will join the Biden administration next week for a temporary role advising Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on higher ed policy. Daisy Gonzalez, the deputy chancellor, will serve as acting chancellor of the system—which enrolls 2.1 million students across 116 colleges—until Oakley’s return in the late fall.

Oakley has focused on student success and equity during his five years leading the system. He previously led the Long Beach Community College District, where he helped establish the successful Long Beach College Promise, which supports students across the K-12 system, provides two years of free tuition at the community college, and guarantees admission and supports for eligible students at California State University, Long Beach.

At times Oakley has squared off with faculty unions and groups, including over his backing of performance-based funding for the system and for Calbright College, a new, online, and competency-based institution that has struggled to enroll students. But he has had support from equity-focused groups in California.

Oakley told the Los Angeles Times that his priorities as an adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona will include job training, college completion, broader access for adult students, dual enrollment, and increasing the maximum Pell Grant award.

“The one thing that’s important here, and I think it cuts across party lines, is that every American wants access to a good-paying job,” he said. “Community colleges are the kinds of places we should be investing in because they’re closest to normal everyday working Americans.”

Oakley’s temporary gig in some ways sounds like the three-month stint Paul LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire University’s president, did at the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration. LeBlanc largely focused on alternatives to traditional college during his time in D.C.

Nellum’s Take

The Education Trust, an equity-focused nonprofit organization, last week announced that Christopher J. Nellum is the new executive director for the Education Trust-West. Nellum and the group, which he joined in 2017, are likely to have sway on higher ed policy in coming months, observers say, particularly as the national Ed Trust president, former education secretary John B. King Jr., focuses on running for governor of Maryland.

Here’s what Nellum had to say about Oakley’s new gig:

Chancellor Oakley’s laser focus on equity and experience heading the most extensive community college system in the country are just what we need to propel President Biden and Secretary Cardona’s agendas forward during the most critical academic year in recent history. In addition, his commitment to remedial education reform, supporting undocumented students, and college affordability have significantly impacted California’s students and our colleges. I’m confident he will bring his vision and track record of success to Washington and is doing so at just the right time.

Veterans and Online Education

The U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has been mulling a potential bill aimed at online college programs that enroll veterans of the U.S. military, according to several well-placed observers. 

The legislative proposal would increase the monthly housing stipend for GI Bill recipients who are enrolled in online programs—a boost long sought by some colleges. Currently, Post-9/11 GI Bill recipients who are enrolled in online programs are limited to half the monthly housing allowance (which varies based on location and other factors, but averages about $1,800). The proposal would open up the full allowance to online students.

Republicans on the committee generally have backed lifting the 50 percent cap. And to make the bill more attractive to Democrats, the committee has considered a requirement that benefit-eligible institutions spend at least 35 percent of their tuition revenue on instruction, academic support, and student services.

It’s not clear how many institutions might run afoul of such a requirement, which sources said would cover eligibility for a wide range of veterans’ benefits, including other forms of the GI Bill as well as retraining programs.

Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates, said the discussion over the proposal was timely and should lead to a “balanced solution that ensures military-connected students receive an appropriate housing allowance as well as a high-quality education that provides a strong return on investment for their hard-earned benefits.” Peller, a former Democratic committee staff member, said the debate will have broader implications as online learning continues to grow and evolve, an issue on which her organization recently wrote.

“It is important that quality and equity continue to remain central to the conversation around online learning,” she said.

The bill is stalled in the committee. Yet legislation affecting veterans can move quickly. And the committee, one of few on the Hill where bipartisanship still holds sway, could drop the bill as part of a package. Stay tuned.

Short-Term Pell and Spending Requirements

As an Education Department official during the Obama administration, Robert Shireman led the creation of the gainful-employment rule, which sought accountability for vocational programs (mostly those offered by for-profit institutions) based on a measure of whether graduates were repaying their student loans.

The Trump administration nixed the rule. But many predict the eventual return of a similar federal metric—perhaps one applied more broadly across higher education.

The influential Shireman, now director of higher education excellence and senior fellow at the Century Foundation, has weighed in on the bipartisan congressional push to open up federal Pell Grants to education and training programs of 15 weeks or less in length.

First, he wrote that short-term Pell should include a requirement for matching funds from employers or for at least half of tuition revenue to go toward the instruction of students enrolled in eligible programs. After speaking with a group of community college officials, Shireman last week described a simplified version of the consumer-protection idea. Here’s his suggested language for such a requirement:

Program expenditures for instruction, academic support, and student services, excluding pre-enrollment expenditures (such as recruiting and advertising), [must] amount to more than half of the revenue from program tuition and fees.

Shireman wrote that the provision “would provide some assurance that short-term Pell Grants are not being used primarily as a money-maker to finance a school’s other programs or to enrich contractors engaged in recruiting operations.”

This Week in Work Shift

Opinion: To expand opportunity, rethink what counts as a "successful" career path
Opinion: To expand opportunity, rethink what counts as a “successful” career path

Texas Labor Commissioner Julian Alvarez III says that creating more equitable opportunity in his state depends on expanding hands-on training and giving better guidance on the full range of careers.

Facing a shortage of early childhood educators, states look to competency-based education
Facing a shortage of early childhood educators, states look to competency-based education
A growing number of colleges and entire states have zeroed in on competency-based education as a way to prepare more workers for the field.

Open Tabs

Enrollment Woes

Roughly 270,000 fewer high school seniors completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) during the last two academic years, according to the National College Attainment Network. FAFSA completion was down 4.8 percent for the class of 2021 compared to the previous year. And schools with the highest concentrations of students of color and lower-income students had the largest declines.

Short-Term Programs

“The adults that we work with, they simply don’t have two years to three years to pursue a degree. They need to get that first job, to go to work, to earn that paycheck, and to continue their education” Monty Sullivan, president of Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said during an episode of a JFF podcast, which I host, on subsidized short-term credential programs.

Maine’s governor has approved the use of federal recovery funding for $35 million in workforce training for both the state’s community colleges and the University of Maine system. The two-year system said it would use the $35 million in onetime funding to support short-term training for an estimated 8,500 Mainers in health care, green technology, manufacturing, hospitality, education, computer technology, and skilled trades. 

Student Veterans

Access to the Post-9/11 GI Bill increased college enrollment and completion among veterans of the U.S. Army, according to a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. But it may also have led to lower wages among recipients, largely because of reduced work experience, with negative earnings being concentrated among veterans who attended for-profit institutions.

Degree Requirements

“Degree discrimination is not illegal, but it is a damaging bias that’s blinding companies to talent they need and reinforcing existing economic inequalities,” Byron Auguste, CEO and co-founder of Opportunity@Work, wrote in an essay for The Washington Post. Almost three-quarters of new jobs are roles where employers typically require bachelor’s degrees, he wrote, but fewer than four in 10 American workers have that credential.

Let me know what I missed. Catch you next week. —PF @paulfain

A veteran higher education journalist and analyst, Paul focuses on the connections between education and the American workforce.