No More Attending Classes: These Community Colleges Let Students Learn at Their Own Pace

Students in competency-based education classes work on their own time and test when they’re ready.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Jaqueline Yalda, who has been a campus police officer at El Paso Community College in Texas for a decade, sought a promotion earlier this year. But first, the department required her to complete a college-level course in criminal justice.

It had been many years since Yalda had taken any college classes. And at age 38, she felt a little intimidated.

But, a few weeks later, Yalda had earned an ‘A’ in Introduction to Criminal Justice and was promoted to sergeant. Now, she’s eyeing moving up to lieutenant, which will require finishing her full associate degree.

Her secret? Taking the course at El Paso Community College through a “competency-based education” program, which let her move through an online course at her own pace. She finished in four weeks, faster than the eight allowed, and said professors responded quickly online when she had questions.

“This was my first time taking a CBE course,” Yalda said in a phone interview from the police headquarters on the Valle Verde campus. “After taking it, I’m definitely going to consider taking the other courses I need. At first, I was scared because I never worked on the [remote teaching platform] before. Once I took the orientation … I thought, ‘Wow, this is really easy and convenient.’”

Supporters see the spread of competency-based education as a boon to working adults and other nontraditional students who want additional training and credentials to advance their careers. But critics, including some professors, say it’s a poor substitute for traditional learning.

While a few colleges around the country have used competency-based education for some courses, California is set to become the first state to coordinate competency-based programs across eight community college campuses using state-backed curricula. More states may seek to follow that example, according to Amber Garrison Duncan, executive vice president of the Competency-Based Education Network, a nonprofit group formed to evaluate and promote such programs.

Unlike typical college classes, competency-based education doesn’t require students to attend classroom lectures. And unlike asynchronous online courses, in which students log in and watch recorded online lectures over a semester, students in competency-based courses complete coursework at their own pace.

Grades are based on projects, papers or exams that students complete when they feel ready to prove they have mastered the material.

The courses are different from those offered by private, for-profit online universities, in that they cost about the same as a regular public community college course and often use life learning or a particular skillset as a prerequisite rather than class standing as, say, a sophomore. Students who already have mastered the information included in a class can simply skip the hours of instruction and compete the assessment for that class.

Garrison Duncan said in an interview that at the group’s conference this month, there was interest from “every flavor of institution, from community colleges to four-year institutions, and from theology to welding. It’s a movement in which we see gaining traction in different fields and disciplines.”

Still, experts see some skepticism among instructors who thrive on personal relationships with their students.

Many instructors “do see the value of offering that kind of flexibility for our students. We appreciate that flexibility in our personal and professional lives, too,” said Flower Darby, associate director of the University of Missouri’s Teaching for Learning Center, a professional development organization, during an online conference sponsored by the Chronicle of Higher Education in September.

But, she added, many professors also feel a “loss of connection” with students. “And, quite frankly, I think that’s what brings a lot of us our joy in our teaching … that fizz, that buzz, that connection with our students,” Darby said. “So, the real question is … how can we cultivate those connections?”

State models

Of the eight California colleges participating in the pilot program, seven have received accreditation from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, said Melissa Vallarin, spokesperson for the California community college system chancellor, Sonya Christian. At least one competency-based program will start in the spring.

Courses over the group of campuses will include early childhood education, business administration, kinesiology and wellness, technology, automotive tech and culinary arts, Vallarin said in an email.

The programs are designed to reach “working adults, older, and underserved students,” she wrote.

The biggest hurdle, she said, was getting accreditation for the courses, which sometimes rely on knowledge that students have gleaned outside traditional learning settings, such as from job experience, rather than traditional evaluation methods such as class hours, student achievement, or evaluation of in-person teacher skills.

Duncan, of the Competency-Based Education Network, said states have embraced the programs partially to address worker shortages in fields such as health care, education and certain trades requiring specialized skills.

“You are seeing states step up and start to support more of this activity than they have in the past,” she said in a phone interview. “I think there’s a lot of pressure to increase access. Programs based on time [in class] are still difficult for students who are juggling families and work.”

Some states have taken first steps toward offering competency-based courses in their community colleges. California and Texas have funded grant programs and provided seed money for the courses as the colleges prepare materials and seek accreditation. At least six Texas community colleges offer CBE courses, said Myshie Pagel, dean of education and career and technical education at El Paso Community College.

Kentucky last year issued a planning guide for community and technical colleges considering implementing competency-based courses. Salt Lake Community College in Utah offers 19 competency-based courses, and at least one Massachusetts community college offers competency-based courses in early childhood education.

Some four-year state schools also allow students to earn degrees through competency-based courses. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, for example, offers an associate of arts and sciences, and bachelor’s degrees in information science and technology, diagnostic imaging, nursing and health sciences.

Faculty concerns

A survey published in July of El Paso Community College students involved in competency-based education found that most took only three to four weeks to complete a course. Almost 60% plan to enroll in more CBE courses, the survey found, while a little less than a quarter of students said the format was not a good fit.

Faculty who completed the survey praised the training they got for conducting the competency-based courses, but they recommended more training and technical resources to create materials and record lectures.

Pagel, at El Paso Community College, said keeping faculty in the loop about course design was key to getting their buy-in, along with compensating them the same as they would for teaching an in-person class worth three credit hours.

“It’s the students that save their time, not the faculty,” she said, because teachers must be available to answer questions, meet virtually with students and hold regular office hours, just like any other faculty. They also participated in designing the courses, Pagel said.

“On the faculty side, what you are really able to do, is for those students who just get it, you can move them through,” she said. “For those students who are struggling, it gives the faculty member more time to spend more time with those students.”

But faculty at one of the California colleges slated for the pilot program expressed concerns about the shift. In a resolution passed in August, the Madera Community College’s faculty senate raised fears that CBE courses could exacerbate rather than ease inequities among students by relegating poorer students to CBE programs. The resolution asserted that professors hadn’t been kept aware of the college’s plans.

At the Senate meeting Aug. 25, English professor Jeffrey Ragan said the competency model could lead to lower pay for faculty, despite the experience at colleges such as El Paso Community, where faculty pay was unchanged by the new model. According to minutes from the meeting, Ragan noted that faculty are currently paid by the number of lecture-hours worked and said the competency model would upend that.

“We would have to log our work and it would be subject to low caps…. In other words, we would be selling ourselves cheaply,” he said, according to the minutes. He also questioned how professors would be evaluated under the new model. Ragan could not be reached for comment for this article.

Kelle Parsons, senior researcher for the American Institute for Research, a nonprofit research and consulting group that has developed modeling tools for institutions interested in competency-based education, said it’s challenging to measure the programs’ success because “CBE turns so many of the things we take for granted into a variable.”

For example, Parsons said, colleges generally count “on-time” completion of a degree as four years for associate degrees and six years for bachelor’s degrees.

“But in CBE, it might take shorter or longer,” Parsons said in an interview. “In our first earliest attempts to measure enrollment and retention, students were doing about as well as, and sometimes a little bit better than, students in traditional programs.”

She said her organization expects more schools to launch similar courses, given that her group, which has expertise in competency programs, is fielding more inquiries lately. “Based on the number of new institutions reaching out to us, we see interest from a new batch.”

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Scott S. Greenberger for questions: info@stateline.org. Follow Stateline on Facebook and Twitter.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today