Paloma Money needed to take a business math course to complete her associate degree in multidisciplinary studies last spring at El Paso Community College, but she did not have a lot of free time. With four jobs and five classes, she needed a miracle and found it in what became Tejano Flex Learning.
Tejano Flex Learning is EPCC’s brand of Competency-Based Education, or CBE. This concept, which is gaining popularity around the country, allows students to fast-forward through course material based on their skills and knowledge of the subject.
EPCC offers 16 of these eight-week online courses, but expects to have 25 available by the end of the year. They fulfill core requirements in such high-demand fields as criminal justice, business management, teacher preparation and information technology. Organizers expect to expand its course portfolio to about 100 by 2026.
Money, a native of Juárez who lives on the West Side, said she finished the course in six weeks due to her familiarity with some of the math concepts from past work experiences, and because of the help and patience of her instructor.
“That kind of course was designed for someone like me who has multiple jobs and a lot of classes,” Money said. “That program worked for me.”
EPCC launched its CBE program with 12 courses in spring 2022. It was renamed the Tejano Flex Learning (TFL) program this semester.
As with any course, the subject is divided into components supported by instructor-provided text, videos, PowerPoints and the like. Students can study those materials or bypass them to take an assessment. Those who achieve at least a 70% on their test may continue to the next component. Those who do not may retake the test or choose to review the materials before taking the test again.
Since its inception, more than 500 students have taken at least one TFL course. The initial overall pass rate is 63%, but organizers said the program has evolved since its early days and the numbers have improved. It now uses a more robust learning management system and has added several team members, most importantly a full-time student adviser. TFL leaders now expect pass rates of at least 75% and to grow from there.
“We now have more resources that can provide more student support,” said Fernie Mata, CBE project director. “The experience is improving.”
Myshie Pagel, instructional dean of education and CTE (Career and Technical Education) at the college’s Valle Verde campus and the program’s project manager and principal investigator, said she expected EPCC to enroll close to 200 TFL students this semester, and believes that number will balloon to 2,000 by 2025 because of how EPCC plans to expand its portfolio of courses, and the success of other institutions that offer CBE courses, such as Austin Community College and Texas A&M Commerce.
The TFL courses are available to students in the fields mentioned, but were created especially for people with job experience such as veterans, active-duty military, and those with work skills but little to no formal education. The more successful students will be those who are efficient, proactive and willing to make the most of the program.
A prime example is Hugo Orozco, a retired Army infantryman, who completed his eight-week “Intro to Criminal Justice” course in two weeks – and earned an A.
Orozco, a native of Juárez who grew up in several Texas communities, said his goal is to join the U.S. Border Patrol because of his interest in law enforcement and munitions. He said his military experience, along with a college degree, would make him a good candidate.
The Army veteran currently serves as a contractor for the U.S. Department of State as part of a security detail for dignitaries in Iraq. Because of the amount of downtime between assignments, Orozco has registered for several online courses through EPCC. The criminal justice course was his first with TFL, and the only course he took in spring 2023.
Orozco said an advantage of the TFL course was that every component was open from day one, which allows students to advance at their own pace. He would pass an assessment and proceed to the next topic. His confidence in knowing the material fed his momentum.
He stressed that while his military background and cross-training with law enforcement agencies was important to his speedy completion of the course, it also required him to read and study the class materials.
“I’m interested in criminal justice,” said Orozco, who expects to complete his associate degree in criminal justice next year and then enroll at a university to pursue a bachelor’s degree in homeland security. “The more you are interested in a subject, the more you pay attention and the more you are interested in learning.”
In 2020, the American Institutes for Research published the results of its National Survey of Postsecondary Competency-Based Education. It included institutional motivation to adopt CBE courses. Among its results were 67% wanted to expand access to nontraditional learners, 59% wanted to respond to workforce needs and 56% wanted to improve learning outcomes.
EPCC, which is part of the national Competency-Based Education Network, began to develop these programs in 2017, but its measured efforts accelerated after the program earned several grants.
The first big push came after the Texas Workforce Commission awarded TFL a one-year, $173,000 College Credit for Heroes grant in 2020 to streamline the path for veterans and military students to earn a degree, and transition from active-duty to the workforce. The next year, the Institutional Resilience and Expanded Postsecondary Opportunity awarded a two-year, $1.6 million grant to address distance learning programs during the pandemic. That included more than $480,000 to develop competency-based curriculum. Also in 2021, Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program – Title V, awarded TFL a five-year $2.7 million grant to develop CBE courses for degree pathways as well as technical, administrative and multimedia support.
Pagel, the TFL director, said that the instructors and designers have become proficient enough to produce about 10 new courses per semester. Some of the new ones that will be offered in the near future include math, history, real estate and more courses in the healthcare field. All courses are created with the knowledge of the college’s accrediting agency, SACSCOC (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges).
CBE critics have said that these courses are not as beneficial for people who want to learn new skills and knowledge, and need to consume and understand that information quickly. The short-term goals are to make students’ workforce ready instead of ready for long-term learning.
Pagel acknowledged that CBE courses are not as helpful for students right out of high school with limited workforce experience, but they are a game-changer for people who bypassed college or stopped out initially to get a job.
“This allows (higher education) to value what they’ve learned in the workforce, and we can validate that through competencies,” Pagel said. “We emphasize that point and encourage them to come back to college.”
Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.