TOPICS > Education > Rethinking College

Online university skips class to be more accessible

August 25, 2014 at 6:36 PM EDT
College for America, an online degree program, has no classes, professors or credit hours. It's been cited as an innovative way to make college more affordable. But how do its students qualify for a degree? Hari Sreenivasan reports from New Hampshire on a university that gives credit based on competency at the student's own pace.

GWEN IFILL: We turn now to a new series we’re calling Rethinking College.

As the fall semester begins on campuses across the country, there are clouds on the horizon. Skyrocketing tuitions, crippling student debt, and an uncertain job market have led many to reexamine the value of today’s college degree.

Our series begins with a look at a pretty radical challenge to the traditional college experience. This one features no classrooms or professors.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

MAN: Once again, just giving you kind of a broad overview.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For more than a century, higher education has relied on the credit hour. Students earn credit for hours spent in class. In turn, credits add up to a college degree.

MAN: Under a traditional, historical common law definition.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And while the credit hour is still the mainstay here at Southern New Hampshire University, a private institution of 17,000 students, the school has also embarked on a movement that questions the very value of the college classroom.

President Paul LeBlanc says the nation invests too much in the idea of the credit hour.

PAUL LEBLANC, President, Southern New Hampshire University: We give $153 billion of federal financial aid out every year based on the credit hour. But the credit hour is really only good at one thing, or at least the principal thing, which is telling people how long you sat, how long were you in class. It’s not very good at telling people what you have actually learned.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Under LeBlanc’s leadership, Southern New Hampshire University has launched College for America, an online degree program with no classes, no professors, and no credit hours.

PAUL LEBLANC: Rather than measuring how long someone sat, the old credit hour construct, we actually have a program that measures what you learn, and we throw time sort of out the window.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So how is this different than online universities that have existed for years now?

PAUL LEBLANC: Almost all of online education today is still based on the credit hour and the course. We don’t have any courses, and we don’t have any credit hours, but we have 120 competencies, and you can master those as fast as you like, or as slow. The thing that we don’t care very much about is time. And that is such a fundamental reversal of the basic structure of higher education.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Last year, President Obama cited the new program as an innovative way to make college more affordable.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Southern New Hampshire University gives course credit based on how well students master the material, not just on how many hours they spend in the classroom. So, the idea would be, if are learning the material faster, you can finish faster, which means you pay less, and you save money.

NARRATOR: The College for America has found a way to deliver more skills.

HARI SREENIVASAN: An associate’s degree at College for America costs $5,000, a bachelor’s $10,000. In its first year, the school had 600 students spread out across 39 states.

NARRATOR: We have finally truly innovated a college for America.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Students like Sue Shipka, a widower from Burlington Massachusetts who had tried to earn a degree once before, while raising her three children.

SUSAN SHIPKA, Student, College for America: I’m sitting in class and I’m thinking of my kids at home with a babysitter, I’m not there, and everything else that I have to do, and I could be working overtime to pay the bills, or, you know, there were so many other things. So my mind was preoccupied. I wasn’t in class, so it wasn’t really helpful.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A licensed nurse practitioner, Shipka hopes an associate’s degree will lead to a job in hospital management with a higher salary and fewer hours.

SUSAN SHIPKA: It will free up some time, so I can spend more time with the kids, even though they’re getting older. Working full-time, I missed a lot of time.

PAUL LEBLANC: This model says, look it, if you have been working for 20 years and you look at the math competencies and you say, I got these cold, why would we make you sit through 16 weeks of course, class time?  Go ahead, demonstrate that you actually in fact have mastered these, and then move on.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But if College for America has no courses and no professors, how do its students qualify for a degree?

That’s where chief academic officer Cathrael Kazin comes in.

CATHRAEL KAZIN, Student, College for America: I think that fits very nicely with our competencies on quality management.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Kazin oversees a team of subject matter experts, academics, and industry leaders who are responsible for degree content.

CATHRAEL KAZIN: What we did was to take a model degree, and then kind of break it apart. So we identified the key competencies that a student should develop in the course of earning that degree.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Students are given a series of projects to complete on their own time. The projects are evaluated by experts, an approach called direct assessment.

CATHRAEL KAZIN: The projects are organized around certain themes. Each project is associated with a certain number of competencies. So, for instance, you might have competencies that involve critical thinking, communication skills, quantitative reasoning.

You would demonstrate those by doing a business memo, for instance, with a spreadsheet that attacked a particular business problem. You might curate a virtual museum exhibit, so that you would be showing people how you look at art, right? So they’re all very, very carefully crafted.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But awarding competency-based credits has generated some skepticism among faculty at other institutions.

JOHANN NEEM, Western Washington University: The purpose of a college education is actually to produce insight, not competency. OK?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Associate Professor Johann Neem, from Western Washington University, says college classrooms foster much more than competency.

JOHANN NEEM: The reality is, seat time is a bad way of thinking about what happens in a classroom. It’s actually about actively engaging with material. It’s thinking time. That’s when brains are engaged. That’s when minds are thinking. That’s when people are talking to people, and that’s what this is all about, ultimately.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For now, College for America targets adults like Sue Shipka.

PAUL LEBLANC: Our program is designed for those 40 million working adults who might have some credits, but no degree. And this is true at a time when 70 percent of all new jobs will require two degree or its equivalent. We have got a huge crisis in this country of preparing our work force, and what College for America is really designed to do is serve those working adults.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The college has partnered with more than 50 companies that sponsor employees who are interested in pursuing a degree. Sue Shipka’s employer, Partners HealthCare of Massachusetts, is paying half of her $5,000 tuition.

But LeBlanc sees a much bigger role for competency-based education. He currently leads a group of 20 colleges and universities that discuss competency-based best practices. The group was recently funded by the Lumina Foundation, which also funds the “NewsHour.”

This is a fairly disruptive idea. Does higher education need this disruption now?

PAUL LEBLANC: I think competency-based education looms large as a disruptive force in the higher education because what it allows you to do is, when you reverse that time is fixed/learning is variable kernel, and you start to unbundle all of what goes into learning people, you can start to think about very new business models, different ways to bring learning to people. And that’s very powerful.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Department of Education has weighed in and approved the use of federal aid for students attending College for America. The department is currently evaluating applications from several more institutions.

GWEN IFILL: We continue our Rethinking College series tomorrow, when Hari looks at the trillion-dollar burden of student loans.

And, online, we look at the changing face of the typical college freshman. No longer just fresh out of high school, they’re older and juggling jobs and families.