Student Support Is a Must: Improving Competency-Based Education Through the Student Perspective

Today's student population isn't exclusively bright-eyed 18 year-olds fresh out of high school. Many students are returning to school years later. They're juggling kids, family responsibilities, multiple part- or full-time jobs, among other commitments, and so the need to accommodate this growing segment of students is very important.

Competency-based education (CBE) is an innovative model of higher education defined by the Department of Education as "transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery... regardless of time, place, or pace of learning."

Sounds pretty awesome, right? Completing a degree on your own schedule, whenever and wherever you want is a model that has the potential to change the game for a lot of students. Plus, the Harvard Business Review said CBE "is the key to filling the skills gaps in the workforce."

Recently, Young Invincibles talked to CBE students around the country about different aspects of their program -- likes, dislikes, cost, motivation, and more. Students raved about one thing: the support they receive from advisors and coaches.

That's because when all classes are online and students don't have much, if any, face-to-face interaction with instructors, it can be difficult to stay motivated. Advisors and coaches in CBE programs play an essential role for student success. One student said, "motivation is very important because you don't have a professor face-to-face. You're on your own time, independent. That's why it's so great we have the tutors here." Another student said, "We definitely need motivation. That is essential. We have an amazing team of staff members; they definitely do a good job of motivating us."

Support can look different across institutions, and include coaches, advisors, and tutors. At Match Beyond in Boston, a program that partners with Southern New Hampshire University, coaches are on site all day to help students with their projects. Students can also visit their coaches to discuss life skills. According to one student, "They like to make sure that you can do your work and succeed in the program." Another student said, "I thought college [wasn't] for me, I was going to mess it up, because I know what type of student I am. They really work with me here and it's on me." And finally, "...I like the atmosphere and staff at Match Beyond. It's better than being in a classroom and you feel like you're getting that one-on-one."

At Broward College in Florida, students are assigned academic coaches that check in with them and help students stay on track. A student at Broward said, "There's an academic coach that we communicate with every week. One time [the coach] was saying, 'You know, your activity is looking pretty slow.'" Another student replied, "My academic coach is a major relief to me. I think every school, every student should have an academic coach."

Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) has a small CBE pilot program and its approach CBE is a balance between cutting students completely loose from the classroom and requiring seat time. Instead of three in-class sessions per week like many traditional programs, SLCC houses its CBE program completely online, but requires students to come to campus once a week. They provide dedicated meeting spaces and course instructors on hand help ease the transition from a traditional program to CBE.

One thing is clear: support is integral to student success for CBE students. But there are different types of support out there, like social support, academic support, and general coaching. We learned something critical in our work with CBE students: social support alone is not enough.

One young woman's story is illustrative of why this is the case. Sherry Glover, an online CBE student learning through Southern New Hampshire University, shared her perspective on social and academic support with us. Sherry was a CBE student at a time when she had just become a new wife and mother. She explained that this was why she really enjoyed the flexibility of the program because it gave her the opportunity to focus on both school and family. She said that her coach was extremely understanding with her life circumstances and was always willing to talk about the personal circumstances that slowed her pace through the CBE program. However, Sherry explained that she did not feel like she had the same support when it came to the actual curriculum and completing competencies. She found some of the work really hard because she wasn't able to get the academic support she needed. The right blend of social and academic support would have given Sherry the boost that she needed to feel confident in her studies.

There are a lot of variables up in the air when talking about the future of competency-based education. There are disagreements about credits, instruction time, cost, and curriculum. But what we do know is that ensuring CBE students have both academic and social support to succeed in the form of accessible coaches, advisors, and tutors is essential.

By Jasmine Hicks, National Field Director, and Justin Yeater, State Outreach Coordinator