In what is being recognized by many as a landmark in the evolution of higher education, College for America has obtained approval from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to be eligible for Title IV, Higher Education Act (HEA) funding. College for America's competency-based model is the first in the nation to be approved by the DOE under direct assessment provisions that pay for actual learning versus seat time.
Established in 2012 with support from an EDUCAUSE Next Generational Learning Challenge grant, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, College for America is designed to rebuild higher education and strengthen the American workforce.
"I am excited that Southern New Hampshire University is leading the way with its competency-based associate degree program," said Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter. "Our nation needs more individuals with the knowledge, skills and training to strengthen our nation's economy, and College for America's self-paced approach and partnerships with business is an example of the kind of innovation we hope to see across the nation."
"This a major step forward, especially for working students and their employers," said Paul LeBlanc, President of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) and leader on the effort to innovate the program.
"So many of them want low-cost, highly measurable degrees that actually align with the needs of employers and workforce opportunities. This new federal loan and grant eligibility not only means more access for working students… it signals recognition of a whole new way to deliver learning that we think can significantly boost national competiveness."
Developed by SNHU's Innovation Lab, College for America is a competency-based, self-paced, online program that offers an Associate of Arts degree based on definable skills and measurable results. The program was built to diminish the major barriers to a college-level education -- rising tuition costs, geography, intensely competitive learning environments and impracticality -- for working adults.
Under direct assessment provisions federal financial funds pay for measurable learning, not time-based units of curriculum. In the current model, time is largely fixed around the three-credit hour course while how much a student learns is highly variable. College for America is the first degree program to completely decouple from the credit hour, dispensing with courses and is instead built around 120 competencies.
The program, offered to students through their employer, is low cost ($2,500 a year, all-inclusive) and students have multiple sources of support, including an SNHU Coach and a peer Accountability Partner, but there are no instructors in the traditional sense. And instead of accumulating credit hours and grades, the program requires students to demonstrate evidence of mastery through the set of 120 competencies, where they accomplish specific tasks, which are scored by trained reviewers using analytic rubrics. This competency-based structure ensures that students have acquired the most relevant and necessary workforce skills -- communication, critical and creative thinking, quantitative literacy and collaboration.
College for America's curriculum, grounded in well-regarded frameworks for learning, blends general skills such as communication and quantitative reasoning with soft skills such as team work and giving and taking instruction with specific workplace skills. The core foundation for the program rests on the building blocks of the Lumina Foundation's Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) and the U.S. Department of Labor, which includes Specialized Knowledge, Broad Integrative Knowledge, Intellectual Skills and Civic Learning.
"We want to make sure these new competency-based programs are rigorous, with no compromises in academic quality," said Kanter. "When students, faculty members, institutions of higher education, accreditors, employers and government better understand what graduates know and can do, everyone stands to benefit."
And in workplaces across the country, it's working. At Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, CEO Lisa Guertin brought College for America to the company's employees for several reasons. "We can attract and retain the best employees when we can offer benefits like a college degree," said Guertin. "And those strong employees become even more valuable as they learn to solve problems and innovate." Director of Enterprise Benefits Administration, Darby Conley, is one of the highest-level people at Anthem in College for America's program. "College for America allows employees to become marketable. Without a degree, opportunities for advancement are seriously limited within most organizations. College for America's degree is real and transferable, and can open paths to a better future," said Conley.
And at ConAgra Foods, President of Consumer Foods Andre Hawaux connected with the empowering sense of support and community that is part of College for America. "I love that our main role is to offer support and encouragement," he said. "It's not just another learning platform. We help employees earn a better future and that's a great fit for our culture."
Workforce Strategy Center, a consulting think tank established to align education and workforce development with employer needs and economic growth, has recently become part of the university as part of its effort to better align competencies with workplace demands.
"This collaboration is an important step in our unified strategy to align higher education with employer demand," said Julian L. Alssid, chief workforce strategist and nationally recognized expert in workforce development innovation and policy. "Today more and more employers are saying applicants lack the right type of skills. We were brought on board to ensure that the competencies within the program have labor market value and to make certain that the students' tasks and outcomes are relevant to employer needs. And our two groups will ensure the best thinking in education, workforce development and economic growth."
College for America's model was constructed to shift the landscape of higher education and refine America's workforce.
"By 2018, the U.S. will require an additional three million workers with college degrees, and 63 percent of all jobs will require some college. We're clearly experiencing a growing crisis in American higher education. Access to traditional college and its guarantee of skill development is at an all-time low, and without radical change in our approach the U.S. will see its competitive strength continue to wane. By building competencies rather than credits and reducing the cost burden, College for America breaks down the barriers to college-level education for millions and is poised to help put America back in its position of global leadership," said LeBlanc.
"The U.S. is falling behind in college completion and employers are reporting a shortage of basic skills needed to succeed in the workplace. As the critical need for employees with sound, college-level skills increases year after year, College for America has an answer. American higher education is in a crisis of cost, quality and oftentimes irrelevancy to the needs of working adults and employers. We have a different vision -- our program was designed to make college accessible, relevant and transparent."
New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D) fully supports the program. "College for America represents an innovative new approach to higher education and Southern New Hampshire University ought to be very proud of this effort," said Shaheen (D-NH). "The US Department of Education's decision to make College for America eligible for federal student aid will make higher education more accessible for thousands of students in New Hampshire and across the country."
More at College For America.