How should we best serve the large population of working adults in our country who started, but never finished, college?
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, only half of the students nationally who started college in 2004 had finished their degree by 2010. My state, Minnesota, fared only slightly better than the national rate of completion, at 52 percent.
The financial benefits of completing a degree are profound, particularly in an economy plagued by unemployment. A 2010 study by the College Board shows the median income of a 2008 college graduate is 61 percent higher than that of a person without a degree.
One of the most interesting developments in higher education recently is the appearance and proliferation of MOOCs, the inelegant acronym for Massive Open Online Courses. Some of the best universities in the country are putting entire college courses online, for free.
It may be possible to turn this disruptive technology into an advantage for working adults who want to complete a degree.
MOOCs raise fundamental questions about the higher education model. If some courses are free, why would anyone pay tuition for the others?
One answer is: because they need to be guided through the material and supported in their efforts to understand it, and because they require certification that they have actually mastered what they studied.
What’s the role of a teacher, then? It shifts from conveying information to ensuring understanding. It means fewer lectures and more one-on-one and small group work.
I had an epiphany several decades ago when I was helping to start a weekend college for adult learners at a university in the Twin Cities. The problem was how to guarantee the same learning would happen in the 26-hour weekend college format as in the weekday program, where there were 60 contact hours. My solution: I taped my lectures and assigned them as homework. I had some anxiety, fearing the students would complain about paying tuition for recorded lectures.
They loved it.
“I can listen to these tapes after my children are in bed,” they said. And, “If I don’t understand something, I can back up and replay that section.”
I learned two important lessons. First, class time doesn’t have to be spent listening to lectures. Assign the lectures as homework and spend class time on other teaching methods, such as discussions. This was an early version of the “flipped classroom” that’s gaining traction among educators. Second, seat time is a sacred cow in our current education environment; we give it far too much attention. I was able to cover the same amount of material whether I was physically with students for 60 hours or for less than half of that time. In the end, credit was assigned for demonstrated competency, not for time on the clock.
These lessons provide clues about how we might design degree-completion programs. At my school, The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN, we are developing a new program, CSS Complete, that provides an affordable path for working adults to complete a college degree they previously started. The approach is flexible, with personalized attention through Completion Coaches, and it embraces new ways of learning, such as MOOCs.
CSS Complete accepts up to 96 cumulative credits (out of the 128 required for a degree) earned at another four-year or community college, through portfolio review, incremental testing and validation of learning acquired via emerging technologies such as MOOCs. We do not automatically give credit for MOOCs; rather, we award credit for demonstrated understanding of a subject, whether it was gained via books, MOOCs or work experience.
The emphasis on assessment of prior learning guarantees close personal contact with faculty members. For example, a student who demonstrates competency in business may be asked to do additional work in ethics. This helps preserve our Catholic Benedictine mission and values. At the same time, we can lower the overall cost of a degree, because students pay less for several one-on-one sessions with a faculty member than they would for an entire semester of class attendance.
For highly motivated learners, the flexibility and affordability of CSS Complete may provide a new route to a college degree.
St. Scholastica is not the only institution to address the challenge of adult degree completion in new ways. Western Governors University and, on the East Coast, Excelsior College, are two other examples among many.
Our effort, and that of others that will arise as peer colleges come to market with their own models, bode well for working adults who want to earn their bachelor’s degree.
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