Higher Education Thinks Outside the Credit Hour

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Dr. Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University thinks he may have a solution to the workforce crisis.

He has founded College for America (CfA), an innovative model for adult learners to build essential skills, rather than chase after credit hours and grades.

There are no classrooms, textbooks, or teachers. Instead, students take self-paced online courses in order to master 120 competencies. CfA defines competencies as “can-do” statements such as:

  • Can define and use marketing terminology and concepts
  • Can generate a variety of approaches to addressing a problem
  • Can distinguish fact from opinion
  • Can convey information by creating charts and graphs

And these competencies are strictly pass-fail. You either demonstrate a competency through testing, or you’re considered to be working on it.

“Competencies get used in the real world,” says LeBlanc. “No one writes a five paragraph essay.” So graduates of CfA can prove that they’ve mastered 120 different skills that they can actually use in their careers after graduation. That’s a big step up from memorizing 120 facts they may never need.

Once students have demonstrated all 120 competencies, they earn an accredited Associate of Arts degree in General Studies. Such a degree would normally take a typical student around two years. But at CfA, as long as they stay focused, students could complete their degree in as few as six months. Total price tag: $2,500 per year.

CfA recruits students through partner companies that want to train and develop their employees in certain skills. Students enroll through their employer. At last count, 20 partners were sending their employees to CfA.

Speaking of his corporate partners, LeBlanc suggests that “a lot of them see this program as a way of identifying talent that they then want to move into successive levels of the organization or into supervisory positions.”

As for support, each CfA student is guided by a personal Learning Coach. And a Mentor assigned from the student’s place of work.

It’s still early to know for sure whether this new competency model will work. But CfA is already winning accolades for their achievement. Even the federal government has come around to the idea. In April, the Department of Education (DoE) approved CfA for Title IV funding. That means that CfA’s students are now eligible for federal financial aid.

Dr. LeBlanc sees the DoE’s decision as proof that they are on the right track. “I am completely confident that we can get higher education right,” he says. “We have to. Because social mobility is slipping in this country. In my own life experience, education is the transformative power.”

Written by: Michael Mussman
Michael Mussman is Editor of Forward Thinking, the Ashford University blog.

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