In many parts of northeastern Wisconsin, locals can count the number of stop lights in town. Wooded lakes and cornfields dot the landscape, drawing tourists and loggers. 

Lately, though, this region has gained a reputation among California educators seeking to chart a new direction in higher education. Their goal is to fundamentally restructure how California’s community colleges measure learning. Instead of using traditional methods, like attendance and grades, the new system focuses exclusively on a set of skills that students must master. 

Called “competency-based education,” the model has already reshaped several majors at Lakeshore Technical College, a two-year institution located about an hour south of Green Bay. 

Prior to the new approach, automotive instructor Jack Charles used to give two-hour-long lectures every morning on topics such as paints, steels, and plastics, where he said his students would sometimes fall asleep. Now, his only classroom is the auto shop on campus where he waits for students to teach themselves, practice for upcoming tests, and ask him questions. 

The curriculum includes 32 skills, each one corresponding to a different station in the auto shop, like a series of kitchen islands. Every station comes with tools for students to use and a laminated sheet of paper that details the required skill and how to master it.

“Students move from station to station, just like the assembly line,” said Charles, who looks to Henry Ford as inspiration. 

In the last two stations, students have to apply their skills by fixing a car. Students can graduate whenever they can prove that they have mastered all 32 skills, and can generally run through the curriculum as quickly or slowly as they like. 

The Agriculter and Energy Building at Lakeshore College in Wisconsin on Aug. 16, 2023. Lakeshore College offers courses that practice competency-based education that some California schools are hoping to adopt. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
First: The Agriculture and Energy Building at Lakeshore College in Wisconsin on Aug. 16, 2023. Last: The administration building at Nicolet College in Wisconsin on Aug. 17, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Brandon McCulley, 18, arrived at the Lakeshore Technical College automotive classroom straight after work, still wearing the gray uniform emblazoned with the name of the car dealership where he works. He is studying to get a certificate in automotive collision repair and refinishing and comes in about two days a week to practice his skills, although attendance is not required. “I want to put in the work to get there. You’ve got to be committed,” he said, standing next to one of the stations in the automotive lab.

Lakeshore Technical College and Nicolet College, also in Wisconsin, are among the first community colleges in the country that have implemented this model. Nicolet started the shift in 2017 and now enrolls about a third of its roughly 1,900 students in competency-based education. Lakeshore slowly began moving to the new model in 2020, and about 10% of its students were learning through the new system last year, according to the college. The college’s board and president have vowed to transition nearly every major by 2025.  

‘The grand experiment’

In April 2022, two teachers and an administrator from Southwestern College in Chula Vista, near the southern edge of San Diego County, traveled over 2,200 miles to Nicolet College to see for themselves how the model works. They arrived in the middle of a snowstorm.

“They were surprised we made the trek all the way out there,” said Brian Palmiter, a professor of automotive technology at Southwestern College. “I really pushed to go out there because I thought, if I could see it in action, I’d get a sense of what this actually is.”

The trip was part of a 2021 grant from the California Community College Chancellor’s Office that went to eight state colleges seeking to develop this program with a scale and format that will be unprecedented for community colleges in the United States. The California colleges don’t plan to enroll students in the program until the 2024-25 academic year, but already, a few schools have hit some snags.  

In Wisconsin, the new model has had its own challenges. For one, students are taking longer than normal to complete their courses. Informally, instructors at both colleges have reintroduced pieces of the traditional classroom, such as suggested deadlines or course schedules, to help students pace themselves. 

The work station for students taking the Auto Collision Repair courses at Lakeshore College in Wisconsin on Aug. 16, 2023. Lakeshore College offers courses that practice competency-based education that some California schools are hoping to adopt. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
The work station for students taking the Auto Collision Repair courses at Lakeshore College in Wisconsin on Aug. 16, 2023. Lakeshore College offers courses that practice competency-based education that some California schools are hoping to adopt. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Charles asks students to give him a sense of when they plan to stop by the auto shop. “If they don’t come, I usually just send them a text” to help keep them accountable, he said. 

“This is my baby,” he said. “If it fails, I fail.”

The new model offers a chance for students to get degrees in a flexible format, and it’s especially geared toward adults with jobs and families, who have left the community college system in droves. California’s colleges want to provide even more flexibility than the Wisconsin schools by eliminating other vestiges of traditional education, such as how financial aid is administered and teachers are paid.

It’s a “grand experiment,” said Aisha Lowe, an executive vice chancellor at the California Community College Chancellor’s Office.

Student Brandon McCulley stands at a work station for the Auto Collision Repair courses at Lakeshore College in Wisconsin on Aug. 16, 2023. Lakeshore College offers courses that practice competency-based education that some California schools are hoping to adopt. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
Student Brandon McCulley stands at a work station for the Auto Collision Repair courses at Lakeshore College in Wisconsin on Aug. 16, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

For McCulley, that experiment is paying off. The dealership values his education and has agreed to reimburse him up to $7,500, leaving the total cost of his education around $2,500 or less, he said. He makes $17 an hour now but hopes he’ll earn more once he finishes the certification.

Charles works at the same car dealership part time and watches over McCulley in the auto lab, interrupting him to share praise. 

“They’re going to want to keep you,” Charles tells him. 

McCulley is not worried. With a certificate, he said, “you can get a job anywhere.”

At both Wisconsin colleges, instructors say the new model has boosted interest in their automotive programs. In 2019, Charles started the school year with four students, but now, with the new system, he already has 16 this fall and more may still arrive. In the 2016-17 school year, Nicolet College had seven students in the automotive program, but administrators estimate that program will enroll at least 25 this academic year.  

The model depends on staggered attendance, making it more akin to a gym than a traditional classroom, said Nicolet College automotive instructor Ken Duesing. 

“If everyone showed up at the same time, it’d be maxed out,” he said.  

On a recent afternoon, student Noah Wolter, 20, stopped by the Nicolet auto program on the last day of the semester to fill out paperwork and get guidance from Duesing about checking the amperage of a car battery. He’s managing his classes while working 35 hours a week as a mechanic for the local bus system.  

Automotive Instructor Ken Duessing showing student Noah Wolter how to check the ampage of a car in his automotive course at Nicolet College in Wisconsin on Aug. 17, 2023. Nicolet College offers courses that practice competency-based education that some California schools are hoping to adopt. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
Automotive Instructor Ken Duessing showing student Noah Wolter how to check the ampage of a car in his automotive course at Nicolet College in Wisconsin on Aug. 17, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

He considered another automotive program at a for-profit college, Universal Technical Institute, but selected Nicolet because of its price. Now, he’s preparing to take an exam to get his Automotive Service Excellence credential, which serves as a standard license for car mechanics. With the help of federal financial aid, he expects to finish his education in under three years and at no cost. 

Can the lessons from Wisconsin apply to California?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, students left community college en masse, leading to record drops in enrollment in California and across the country. But at Nicolet College, enrollment grew.  It was the only school among 16 of its peer institutions in the state to enroll more students during the pandemic, and Director of Business Intelligence Christin Van Kauwenberg said the new education model could be one reason why. 

Lakeshore Technical College rolled out the new program during the pandemic, when enrollment was already declining. Every year, the college has shifted more majors to competency-based education, leading to an increase in enrollment across those programs.  

Both colleges have noticed that students enrolled in these new programs are moving more slowly on average toward their degrees or certificates than traditional students. In a regular classroom, students who receive a C or D still pass, but the new model requires a student to receive a test score of 80% or higher to be considered “competent” in a skill. 

“If you’re doing a welding skill, getting a C means ‘I kind of got it,’ but to get that A or B, you might have to put more time into practice,” said Jenny Beltran, a program counselor at Lakeshore Technical College.

A welding student works on their assignment during the a welding course at Lakeshore College in Wisconsin on Aug. 16, 2023. Lakeshore College offers courses that practice competency-based education that some California schools are hoping to adopt. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
A welding student works on their assignment during the a welding course at Lakeshore College in Wisconsin on Aug. 16, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

At Nicolet College, Van Kauwenberg said the new model attracts older students who want the flexibility to juggle work, school, and family through self-paced courses. Of the Nicolet students who have enrolled in the new program from 2019 to 2022, roughly a quarter were over the age of 25, compared to about 17% in Nicolet’s traditional classes. 

“Nicolet College is a pretty cool situation,” said Palmiter from Southwestern College.“But there’s some nuances there that are very different from California.”

The two Wisconsin colleges are small and majority white, whereas the eight community colleges in California’s pilot include some of the largest and most diverse community college districts in the country. Even the geography is a contrast in settings: The urban sprawl and desert scrub of the California-Mexico border bear little resemblance to Wisconsin’s quiet, verdant landscape.

Nicolet College doesn’t have a faculty union, and while Lakeshore Technical College does, its powers are significantly limited by state law. Nicolet has shifted some of its pay structure for faculty, though President Kate Ferrel said the total compensation for teachers is comparable. Lakeshore administrators said they are currently revising part of the way the college pays its teachers. They added that the pay structure depends on many factors, such as how many adjuncts or full-time teachers there are in a given program, and which program it is.

In California, all 73 community college districts are represented by faculty unions, and they will play a part in setting teachers’ pay for the program. At Madera Community College near Fresno, academic senate leaders have halted the development of the new model and called for the college to rescind its participation.

One concern is that the model will yield less qualified teachers in some instances, said Madera Community College Academic Senate President Bill Turini, adding that it’s been hard to evaluate the program since “it’s still an abstraction.”  

Among the most significant differences between California and Wisconsin is financial aid. At Nicolet College and Lakeshore Technical College, students receive their federal aid based largely on a formula that traditional colleges and universities use. In California, each community college in the pilot program is petitioning the U.S. Department of Education to be able to offer financial aid based on the number of skills a student develops, rather than the current system, which hinges on the number of hours spent in class.

“Wisconsin still has the framework of a course,” Palmiter said. “What we’re doing throws that timeline out the window. Skilled performance is all that matters.” 

Getting approval from the federal government takes months, however, and many California colleges are still unsure exactly how the new financial aid system might ultimately work at their school.

A new system — with a few exceptions   

In Wisconsin, the new program includes some of the typical features of classroom education, such as letter grades. With the 80% test score requirement, many students saw the model as binary: either a B or an F, Van Kauwenberg said. The college changed the system so students who scored above 90% could get an A.

“Some students are highly motivated by grades,” she said, later adding that instructors also “felt bad about only giving people Bs.”

The college offers two kinds of transcripts: a traditional transcript with letter grades and a new, competency-based transcript that emphasizes which skills the student acquired. She said the new transcript, however, hasn’t gained traction with students or employers. “There have to be pretty fundamental societal shifts for that to be interesting to people,” Van Kauwenberg said. 

At Lakeshore Technical College, students initially had the option to retake exams as many times as needed to prove their competency. But the college later imposed a limit — three tries per course — to motivate students to study. More tests also mean more costs, administrators explained, and in classes like welding, the price of exam materials like steel can be expensive.

Nonetheless, Josiah Vervelde, 28, describes the welding program as “very forgiving,” especially compared to his first college experience. 

At 18, he enrolled at a private four-year university on a basketball scholarship, but by sophomore year, his grade-point average was falling. He lost part of the scholarship and dropped out, incurring about $15,000 in debt that he is still paying off, almost nine years later. 

Welding student Josiah Vervelde studies in a classroom before beginning his welding assignment at Lakeshore College in Wisconsin on Aug. 16, 2023. Lakeshore College offers courses that practice competency-based education that some California schools are hoping to adopt. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
First: Welding student Josiah Vervelde studies in a classroom before beginning his welding assignment at Lakeshore College in Wisconsin on Aug. 16, 2023. Last: Welding student Josiah Vervelde studies working on his assignment testing metal magnetism at Lakeshore College in Wisconsin on Aug. 16, 2023. Photos by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Now he sits with four other students in a Lakeshore Technical College classroom, each person at their own table watching course videos with headphones on. The instructor rotates around the room, answering questions from anyone who chooses to drop by that day. 

“I wish I would have figured this out 10 years ago,” Vervelde said. “It’s easier and cheaper.” 

He still plays and coaches basketball in addition to taking classes, working a full-time job, and caring for two toddlers with his wife. 

“Basketball is basketball. With welding, there’s a lot more outlets you can go to, but I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a kid chase their dreams.”

His goal today is different, he said. It’s about “growing a strong solid family, and providing for them.”

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association’s Reporting Fellowship program. Adam Echelman covers California’s community colleges in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education.

Community colleges reporter for CalMatters in partnership with Open Campus.