Robert H. Seidman – Degree-in-three programs built on competency and assessment


Robert H. Seidman, Professor Emeritus, Southern New Hampshire University

Higher education in the United States is at a tipping point. The cost of a college education has spiraled out of control, leaving deserving students priced out of a bright future and putting the nation at risk of losing much-needed talent. Many states are reducing funding for publicly supported colleges, driving the price of securing an education even higher. Many tuition-driven colleges are struggling to meet their enrolment quotas, leaving some teetering on the abyss.

There is certainly no shortage of innovative work on advancing the quality of higher education, as evidenced in a recent HEQCO blog by the University of Michigan’s Barry Fishman and Caitlin Holman. But what good is higher quality to someone who is priced out of college? Is there a magic bullet to save higher education from the perfect storm of price and cost spirals that threaten the survival of many tuition-driven institutions and that block access to deserving, but financially disadvantaged, students? Maybe.

Voices from HEQCO’s March 23-24, 2016 conference: Transitions: Learning across borders, sectors and silos

Voices from HEQCO’s March 23-24, 2016 conference: Transitions: Learning across borders, sectors and silos

My work over the past 20 years has focused on restructuring higher education to make it more affordable – specifically, cutting the price to students by 25% while simultaneously reducing the delivery costs to institutions by almost that much. This can be done by converting four-year degree programs into three-year degrees without any diminution of educational scope and quality, as noted in my recent book with Martin J. Bradley and Steven R. Painchaud. The underlying foundation is competency and assessment-based curricula, where seat time is decoupled from credit hours and non-seat time educational experiences are fully integrated into the curriculum, which can help make a college education more responsive to the needs of students and society.

The transformation from a four-year degree into a competency-based, integrated three-year degree can be accomplished through curriculum redesign that eliminates unnecessary content redundancy and overlap while at the same time preserves academic quality and integrity. Each existing course in a four-year program is taken apart topic by topic and then reconstructed and integrated into “modules” within a competency-based framework. New academic modules along with their associated learning experiences are created and sequenced in an efficient manner along with their expected outcomes, assessment strategies, and teaching and learning approaches.

Is this easy to do? No. It takes dedicated time, effort and collaboration among faculty members and administrators. Is it worth doing? It was for not-for-profit Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), which has scaled up from offering a singular on-campus three-year integrated competency-based degree program established in 1997 in the business school to now encompassing all 13 business majors. These current Degree-in-Three programs attract a great many students who are looking to save on price and also attract the interest of employers who want assurances that graduates have mastered relevant competencies. Students earn 120 credits over six on-campus semesters with no summers or intersessions. Thirty credits are non-seat time.  It is the non-seat time educational experiences that save delivery costs for the institution.

SNHU’s College for America (CfA) is a mastery-model implementation of online competency-based education that focuses on what students can do with what they know, not just what they know.  Students demonstrate their mastery of competencies by completing realistic, scenario-based activities called Projects.  These projects are created in-house by a team of curriculum and assessment experts.

CfA has completely decoupled credits from seat time. Students learn at their own pace and have extensive interactions with learning coaches who help them stay on track, and with trained experts who evaluate their work.  Students have multiple opportunities to submit work, get feedback, revise their work, get feedback, etc. Students also support fellow students in learning-communities attached to their particular program of study.

The cost: $2,500 per year for a completely accredited program where students are eligible for Federal Title IV financial aid. This is a different price structure than the on-campus programs. Institutional costs are lower since there are no traditional full-time teaching faculty and because of low-cost supporting resources which help students develop the 120 requisite competencies. There are zero student recruiting costs because CfA partners with corporate employers that provide the students. The early results are very promising.

I am not claiming that these innovations at SNHU are a magic bullet for expanding access to higher education. But for the many students who are priced out, a three-year or a CfA program can be the difference between having only a high school degree and earning a college education. It’s time for higher education institutions to provide the affordability and accessibility that so many families and students deserve.

 Robert H. Seidman is a professor emeritus at Southern New Hampshire University.

Our opinion is that the opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are their opinions, and not necessarily those of HEQCO.

One response to “Robert H. Seidman – Degree-in-three programs built on competency and assessment”

  1. […] Each existing course in a four-year program is taken apart topic by topic and then reconstructed and integrated into “modules” within a competency-based framework.  […]

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