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CBE Students Persist More, Move Through Courses Faster and Pay Less

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Capella University has issued a report of findings based on five years of learning outcomes from its competency-based education (CBE) or "direct assessment" program. According to the fully online institution, CBE students have a higher two-year persistence rate than peers following traditional programs; they're getting through their courses of study at a faster pace; and they pay less in tuition and also borrow less.

As described in the report, "Moving Competency-based Education Forward," co-written by Capella and Whiteboard Advisors, Capella launched its FlexPath program in 2014. So far, 6,000 people have graduated from FlexPath and another 7,000 are enrolled in it — out of 39,000 total students attending the institution.

Capella defines direct assessment as a "specialized form of CBE." Rather than following the credit-hour model, students pass authentic assessments to move on in their studies. They can start in any month and finish courses at any time. To earn a degree, learners must demonstrate proficiency in all competencies encompassed in that program, intended to reflect the kinds of activities the given profession requires.

As the report explained, "direct assessment allows students far more flexibility in when they learn and at what pace and intensity than do traditional or even other competency-based programs. This allows students to move more quickly through concepts that are more familiar — and, just as important, it allows students who need more time, for various reasons, to slow down and spend more time on the content areas that are more challenging for them."

Programs run on a 12-week subscription period, and students can tackle as many courses as they'd like in pursuit of their degrees. They track their progress in a "competency map."

The appeal of this approach is especially high, the authors noted, among working adults with unpredictable or non-traditional schedules and people with "learning styles or disabilities that make self-pacing highly beneficial."

Capella found that the median time to completion was 59 percent faster for FlexPath students than for the students attending equivalent credit-hour bachelor's programs. At the master's level, the median time was 42 percent faster.

The median tuition billed to FlexPath students was $10,548, 59 percent less than what was billed to the school's traditional students. And the median financial aid borrowed was 45 percent less.

Also, the persistence for FlexPath learners for the last quarter of 2018 was 23 percent higher than in the equivalent credit-hour programs.

As the FlexPath program progressed, Capella learned from and tweaked its model. For example, the report noted, many FlexPath learners sought "opportunities to build connections and community with other students, and we have since created mechanisms for them to do so in a form and frequency of their choosing."

Also, the institution has "invested in consistent communication," including text, e-mail, "courseroom" messaging and phone calls to reach out to students at key moments in their educational process.

Capella found that orientation was important — so much so that it's required for every new direct assessment student, so they know what to expect, what the policies are, how to stay on pace toward degree completion and how billing and financial aid work.

Another critical success factor was the use of coaches to support students. A coach serves as a ramped-up kind of academic adviser who helps students overcome obstacles — time management, lack of resources, personal issues — that get in the way of progress. The frequency of interactions is based on student preference and, in some cases, may be daily.

As for the best use of faculty, Capella admitted that the jury was "still out." The university has tested traditional faculty roles as well as an "unbundled faculty model," in which some portion of their work "is shifted to secondary resources." The latter approach, however, has led to confusion among students about who to consult with on what. What's not in dispute, the school insisted, was the "integral" role of faculty to the success of students: "Without support from faculty, as well as from academic leadership, the CBE movement will experience significant challenges in maintaining momentum."

What has been a struggle for Capella as an institution is figuring out how to work within the existing federal financial aid system, which still predicates payment on the credit-hour model and assumes traditional enrollment patterns. This "retrofit" results in "confusion for students and unnecessary burdens for institutions," the report stated. The hope is that the U.S. Department of Education will soon develop a financial aid framework specifically for CBE programs that would base eligibility on subscription periods and not seat time.

"Though relatively nascent, the potential of the direct assessment approach is clear and it is evident that, at least at Capella, this approach to higher education can benefit learners. This work reflects Capella's commitment to capturing data and evidence that will enable us to understand the efficacy of existing programs, while also providing benchmarks for quality as new programs scale," said Charla Long, executive director of the Competency-Based Education Network, who wrote the report's foreword. "I'm encouraged by this new evidence as it shows that by allowing learners to advance at their own pace, they may be able to graduate faster, save money, complete at higher rates — all without compromising quality."

The report is openly available through Whiteboard Advisors' website.

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