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Traditional ways upended in college of competence

At-home students focus on demonstrable skills

College for America student Ashley Collins (left) danced with Rachel Marshall and Shane Shaw at one of her three jobs.CHERYL SENTER FOR THE GLOBE

Last semester, Ashley Collins often faced a terrible choice: go to her night class, or pick up a waitressing shift to help pay her community college tuition. Class usually lost out.

As a former foster child with no family to help pay for college, the 21-year-old works three jobs while trying to stay in school.

This year, she switched colleges, and now does her schoolwork at home, in her pajamas when she feels like it.

But this is not one of those trendy online classes everyone is talking about. It’s more radical: a real, accredited degree program with no classes at all, not even online. No teachers, just academic coaches. And a price tag of $2,500 a year.


The new program, called College for America and created by Southern New Hampshire University, demolishes one of the most fundamental building blocks of college: course credit. Instead of requiring a graduate to complete a set number of courses, it asks students to master — at any pace — 120 “competencies.” These are concrete skills such as “can distinguish fact from opinion” or “can convey information by creating charts and graphs.”

In Collins’s case, her pace has been so fast that she may get her associate’s degree — usually a two-year program — just six months after enrolling in College for America.

Shoehorning traditional classes into her work schedule, it “might have taken me 10 years” to graduate, said Collins, who lives in Concord, N.H. And with a full-time job — caring for developmentally disabled adults — that pays just $9.91 an hour, “I don’t really have the income to do it.”

College for America may sound, at first blush, suspiciously like a degree mill. But some leading thinkers in education believe so-called competency-based education, offered by only a few schools around the country, is actually a breakthrough. Proponents say it presents an affordable way for blue-collar adults to learn what they need for their careers, and then demonstrate what they know to job recruiters far more concretely than a transcript would.


Earlier this month, the federal Department of Education approved College for America for federal financial aid funding, the first time the government has signed off on a degree that completely ignores the amount of time graduates spend in school.

“The federal government is saying, maybe we should be paying for learning rather than time,” said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation, a prominent think tank. “I don’t want to be too hyperbolic about it, but it really could signal a new era in higher education.”

Research in recent years has raised serious questions about how much students are learning in conventional degree programs, even as their tuition bills become ever more prohibitive.

A federal study in 2006 found that only a third of college graduates could do basic tasks like comparing the cost of food per ounce. Yet nearly half of undergraduate grades are A’s, as Laitinen noted in a report she published last year arguing that course credit is not a meaningful measure of academic progress.

One other school, Western Governors University, created in 1997 by 19 governors of Western states, has gained wide attention for its competency-based online bachelor’s degree. The school’s 2012 seniors did better on a national exam than their counterparts at 78 percent of schools that participated.


College for America launched its associate’s degree program in January, and its first 277 students enrolled through their jobs. Students include groundskeepers at a New Hampshire retirement community, call center and gas station employees, and factory workers at a ConAgra plant in Ohio that makes frozen pizzas and Slim Jims.

Students pay the same flat rate, $1,250 every six months, until they finish the program.

By assessing students on exactly what they can do, the school not only makes sure they know what they should, but also gives potential employers proof of their qualifications, according to Southern New Hampshire’s president, Paul LeBlanc. A prospective boss can examine a graduate’s actual work online: videos that show her presentation skills, writing samples, or spreadsheets she put together.

“I’ll contrast that all day long with the transcript that employers usually see,” LeBlanc said. “When you get a transcript and you see that somebody got a B in college math, all you really know is that they did better than somebody who got a B-. The transcript is kind of a black box.”

Southern New Hampshire, a private nonprofit school that has gained a reputation for innovation in the last few years, spent about $3 million, including $1 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to develop an online curriculum that allows students to study, practice, and then submit assignments. Rather than creating its own study materials, College for America gathered what it calls the best available around the Web, including textbooks, video lectures, and educational websites.


Coaches monitor the students’ schedules and offer encouragement or troubleshooting. Students can find others who are working on the same subject and ask for help.

When students submit assignments, graders respond within 48 hours, often giving feedback and asking the student to try again.

Many of the assignments are practical. One presents students with hypothetical proposals for a vending machine contract for the employee lounge and ask him to write a memo evaluating the vendors. Then, a grader determines whether the students’ work demonstrates they have mastered five competencies, including writing a business memo, using logic, and making calculations in a spreadsheet.

LeBlanc plans to ultimately offer a bachelor’s degree, and hopes to enroll 350,000 students by 2018. It is not clear yet when students will be able to sign up independently rather than through their jobs. Because most students need support around them to thrive, Southern New Hampshire officials are thinking about teaming up with churches and community organizations.

Clearly, a few things can be lost when the campus is virtual. Collins was one of a group of students who enrolled through the nonprofit where she works. Because she sped through the assignments so quickly, none of her coworkers were ready to work with her on required group projects. She joined another group through the College for America website, but her interactions have been so limited that she has no idea even where her teammates live.

She does, however, get personal pep talks from her coach. When her seasonal job at a seafood restaurant started, she got discouraged about making time for her schoolwork. He reassured her that she was on track.


Collins did well in high school but lost direction after she decided not to pursue culinary school and got burnt out as a nursing assistant. She is still not sure what she wants to do with her life, but intends to go on to get a bachelor’s degree.

Collins lived in foster care from the age of 11. Now, she appears to be just weeks away from becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree.

“I’ve always been pretty driven,” she said. “But I guess I didn’t know I had this much drive to get something done.”

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeMarcella.