Modernizing Education to Increase Degree Program Graduates Project Success

December 12, 2023

Many professionals can’t advance in their careers because they don’t have a degree and face what’s known as the “paper ceiling.” The challenge this creates for people who have years – sometimes decades – of experience, is that the traditional college route to a degree is time-consuming and too inflexible for their busy lives.

To address this dilemma, Coastline College is developing the Direct Assessment Competency Based Education (CBE) program, an innovative and flexible education option where people can leverage the knowledge and experience they have gained on the job and in life to earn an associate degree. 

“The Direct Assessment CBE program will be structured so that students can quickly complete content and assessments in subjects they already know, mostly from on-the-job experience,” said Shelly Blair, dean of innovation learning and career education at Coastline College. “They can leverage their lived experience and existing knowledge to move more quickly through content and assessment. The goal is to get them to their degree efficiently.”

Unlike a traditional classroom where the course hours are constant, in CBE, the time it takes to complete a module is variable, and the demonstration of competencies is held constant, Blair said. “It’s really rebuilding the system and putting students at the center.”

Refining Higher Education

Coastline is one of eight California community colleges developing CBE programs, each focusing on a different discipline and supported by the Direct Assessment CBE Collaborative Pilot Grant. Coastline’s program, which is set to launch by 2025, will lead to an associate degree in management.

“We are here to help people obtain lifelong careers and a thriving wage, not just a living wage,” Blair said. “That’s what we do in career education. Why wouldn’t we try to refine the system to fit the student instead of trying to make the student fit the system?”

Currently, degree programs don’t give credit for experience. For example, a shift lead at a retail store may need a degree to move into management. In a traditional degree program, that employee would have to sit through introductory business courses, even though they have experience in customer service, employee hiring, inventory analysis, and conflict management, to name a few. Similarly, a sales associate may give presentations to clients daily, but to earn an associate degree, they still have to take an introduction to communications course.

“Higher education hasn’t been accommodating to those adult learners who have already made a mark in the working world but never had a chance to earn a degree,” said Erin Thomas, assistant professor of business and business department chair at Coastline College. Thomas has been leading the work with faculty to develop the CBE content modules.

“It’s a really exciting feature of CBE to bring in all of those experiences,” Blair said.

While this program will be open to any student, Blair said it will be especially beneficial to people who have some college and are grappling with college debt. They could likely get through content quickly and benefit from a higher salary.

“In Orange County, we want to attract students who have felt like they haven’t been part of the system, or the system hasn’t worked for them, and show them this alternative,” said Blair. The Coastline team is already working with other OC colleges to help them prepare to build their own CBE programs. Blair envisions Orange County to be a state leader in CBE program education.

She notes that private, four-year institutions have been offering this model and targeting this student population for some time, while public colleges have been slow to adopt it. Coastline’s CBE program will make them competitive with private schools and allow them to attract a whole new demographic.

“I think because we are steeped in so much academic tradition, we forget that the typical 16-week semester doesn’t make sense to so many people,” she said.

Benefits for Students and Industry

CBE uses “student-directed pacing,” where the student directs how much time they spend learning the content. The program is highly structured in that the module content, called competencies, and the order in which they are taken are defined, said Thomas.

In the Coastline Management CBE program, students work on two competencies simultaneously. As they complete one competency, they will be enrolled in the next but never move too far ahead in the sets. This ensures they are prepared for content in more advanced modules.

In CBE, the students complete “authentic” assessments to show they have mastered the content. If needed, they can spend more time on content they have yet to master.

“The program is very intentionally scaffolded,” Thomas said. “It’s a guided pathways approach.”

At the same time, faculty will provide coaching and guidance, which will be especially helpful for whichever competencies are more challenging for each student. In addition, students will have access to the college’s support services. 

“Faculty will play a vital role in CBE,” Thomas said. “If a student hasn’t logged in for five days, the faculty will reach out. They can connect the student to whatever resources they need to move forward. The students can feel like the college is there for them.”

Coastline, in consultation with the CBE program advisory board and faculty, selected competencies from the model that are relevant for an entry-level manager.

“We need to move to a place where businesses are telling us the kinds of skills they need in our workforce. Academia and higher education have been slow to adopt that,” Thomas said. When we listen to industry, we build skills to support a learner who will be successful in that industry. I am trying to help people obtain higher earnings and help businesses be more successful.”

To make the program more viable for working students, Coastline’s program will have multiple opportunities to start every year instead of one opportunity each semester. Students can also continue work across terms known as the “subscription model” of education. If students need to pause, they don’t have to wait for the new semester to resume their coursework. In the program, students pay a flat fee, and they can complete as many modules as they choose during the subscription period.

Coastline’s CBE program is the farthest along in the state and has received approval from the Chancellor’s office and the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC). Once the college receives approval from the federal Department of Education, program participants can access financial aid.

“I honestly do this work because I feel like the students are counting on us,” said Blair. “There are so many people who have been left behind in our current educational model. At the end of the day, people need to access education that values them and be in a place where they feel valued and where their experience and knowledge are seen as an asset. Direct Assessment CBE programs do that.”