Want a degree without classes and lectures? California community colleges test a new approach

Want a degree without classes and lectures? California community colleges test a new approach

A revolution is in the making at California’s community colleges: No more grades, no more sitting through lectures or seminars, no more deadlines. In a pilot program taking shape across eight of the state’s community colleges, the only requirement for some associate degrees will be “competency.”

Students who can prove that they have the relevant skills can earn that degree.

In theory, this model, known as “competency-based education,” could provide students with more flexibility and the potential to attain degrees faster in key job sectors. The pilot is geared toward working adults, many of whom left community colleges at record rates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the state’s population of K-12 students continues to shrink, leaving colleges with fewer students right out of high school, the pilot aims to attract adults who are already in the workforce by “valuing their lived and work experience,” said Madera Community College President Ángel Reyna.

If successful, these community colleges will set themselves apart from every other two-year institution in the country. The pilot, which launched in 2021, provides eight California community colleges with up to $515,000 over the course of four years to each design a single associate degree program using this new model.

The goal is for students to be able to enroll at some point in the 2024-25 academic year, said Aisha Lowe, an executive vice chancellor at the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. In practice, colleges must overcome bureaucratic and logistical hurdles to make the new system work. At least one community college says it is struggling to hit the state’s deadline.

The challenge is to create something that works “but isn’t so different that colleges can still wrap their heads around it and engage,” Lowe said. “It’s definitely unprecedented.”

A new way to measure learning 

The new model restructures the requirements of a degree to reflect what students have learned, rather than the amount of time they spend in class.

Currently, all college degrees require a certain number of hours spent in a classroom, either  in-person or virtually. An associate degree, which California’s community colleges offer, requires roughly 3,000 hours spent in a classroom or on homework in a traditional academic year. That’s why some refer to it as a “two-year degree.”

Teachers get paid in part based on the number of hours they teach. Because of the high number of part-time students, the state funds colleges and universities based largely on the number of hours that a student spends in class, not the number of students themselves.

In this current system, students may be required to sit through classes to get college credit even if they can demonstrate they already have some of the requisite skills. Students who may have less time for school because of work or family obligations lose out too, said Charla Long, the president of the Competency-Based Education Network, a consultant for California’s pilot program.

“We’ve created an inequitable system because it’s so time bound,” she said.

In the new system, students seeking an associate degree in early childhood education at Shasta College in Redding will take 60 different exams, each one testing a specific skill, said Buffy Tanner, the college’s director of innovation and special projects. Students in the program will have materials to teach themselves, teachers will be available to answer questions and counselors will be able to provide wraparound support.

Currently, a student is required to take 20 semester-long classes for that same degree. Students in the new program will be able to take an exam up to three times and can move as quickly or as slowly as they want, Tanner said. In-state students in the new program who do not qualify for financial aid will pay the same total tuition, just shy of $2,800 for an associate degree, not including the cost of books, classroom supplies, or other miscellaneous fees. Shasta College, like the other colleges in the pilot, is still trying to figure out how much to pay faculty in the new system.

Not every student can succeed in this self-paced format. Tanner said the plan is to vet students for the program through questions about their lives and study habits: “Do you need external deadlines? What kind of self-discipline do you have?”

“We have to make sure students fully understand what they’re getting into,” she said.

A growing phenomenon

Such alternative education systems have existed for decades. Since the 1970s, some colleges and universities have experimented with new models of teaching and learning that offer more flexibility and try to evaluate students based on what they know, not on how much time they spent in class, Long said.

In 1997, a group of 19 governors from Western states agreed to develop a private, nonprofit institution, known as Western Governors University, to provide “competency-based” education. With roughly 150,000 students today, it’s the largest higher education institution in the country. Though headquartered in Utah, the university is entirely online and boasts students from all 50 states.

Other large for-profit and non-profit university systems have experimented with the same model, including Capella University, an online college, and Southern New Hampshire University. California followed. In 2018, at the behest of former Gov. Jerry Brown, the state created a new community college, known as Calbright, which is free, entirely online, and exclusively “competency-based.”

“This is radically different, and an incredibly powerful way to support our students,”  Calbright’s blog says about its model.

2020 survey of nearly 500 colleges and universities across the country found that 13%  were already offering at least one degree or certificate through competency-based education and roughly half of those surveyed were in the process of adopting one, though the report noted that there’s “considerable variation” about how they define the model.

Homework after 10 p.m. makes progress slow

For Calbright student Jeremy Cox, the appeal was less about the instructional method and more about the convenience of online education. He started taking online classes in 2016 through for-profit companies such as Udemy and Coursera.

Jeremy Cox at Seal Beach on Aug. 28, 2023. Julie A Hotz for CalMatters
Jeremy Cox at Seal Beach on Aug. 28, 2023. Julie A Hotz for CalMatters

“To be able to just pull out a phone and bust out a couple of lessons from Udemy or Coursera, that’s very helpful,” he said.

One day while at a park near Long Beach with his children, Cox ran into a woman who told him about Calbright College. While Udemy and Coursera do not focus on a particular instructional method, Cox said his experience at Calbright College has been pretty similar, with two key differences. Unlike Udemy or Coursera, he said, Calbright provides teachers who are more available and respond quickly to questions via Slack, a messaging app. The other difference is social interaction. He has become involved in building community among his classmates and serves as the college’s first student body president.

Calbright has had consistent enrollment growth each academic year since it began, despite a scathing report from the state auditor’s office. State legislators have repeatedly tried to defund the school, pointing to poor academic outcomes.

Even though the college advertises that students can finish certificate programs in less than a year, CalMatters found that fewer than 10% of Calbright students actually do. The data only runs through the spring of 2022, and Calbright was unable to provide updated figures.

Cox said he had intended to complete an IT certification at Calbright in three to six months with a goal of one day getting a job that involves user design, artificial intelligence or blockchain. Now, he expects it to take about a year and a half.

“My study time is when the kids go to bed. I only have after 10 p.m.,” he said. “And then with student body responsibilities, my time is split between the two. Half of it is with the student body and half is my studies.”

Creating an ‘unprecedented’ new system

With this new pilot, these eight community colleges in California aim to go one step further than Calbright College, using a similar concept but creating new curricula and setting up new systems to provide even more flexibility for students. Calbright is not in the pilot, but Lowe said the college has provided advice, such as strategies to support students outside the classroom.

By the 2024-25 school year, these eight colleges plan to change part of their state funding formula, faculty pay, and financial aid regulations. They’re also adapting the licenses that allow them to operate, a process known as accreditation. These are changes that take years of work and include getting approval from district boards, state officials and federal agencies. Adapting financial aid policies is particularly cumbersome, but Long, president of the Competency-Based Education Network, said if the eight colleges can succeed, they’ll be the first two-year institutions in the country to do it.

If the state’s community colleges can’t adapt to the competency-model of no lectures or grades, other schools will beat them to it, said Lowe, an executive vice chancellor with the community college system. She pointed to “for-profits” as the primary competitor.

At Shasta College, Tanner said the pilot program offered an opportunity to train students as the state ramps up its plans to offer free transitional kindergarten, which is a year of school offered to any 4-year old before kindergarten. California will need as many as 15,600 new early childhood educators by 2025-26 to teach transitional kindergarten.

State law sets requirements for transitional kindergarten teachers, such as taking 24 units of early education college classes or having comparable professional experience. For those who already have some background in early childhood education, but not enough to meet the requirements, the new course model could allow them to “quickly demonstrate that they know their stuff,” Tanner said.

Unions, faculty leaders voice concern

The success of the pilot depends on the support of the faculty.

“Take a look at teacher load, teacher contracts — that’s all connected to time in the classroom, lecture hours. This whole framework is going to have to break or change and nobody really knows how to go about doing that,” said Elizabeth Waterbury, a music instructor and the faculty association president at Shasta College.

While she supports the idea, she’s concerned about what the new system could do to faculty pay.

“I’m afraid we may be the ones who could make it more difficult for California to transition to competency-based education,” she said.

Tanner and her colleagues haven’t yet tried to sell the faculty union on the pilot. Instead, they plan to ask faculty involved in the pilot program to track their time so that the college first understands the workload.

Last fall, faculty leaders from the Madera Community College Academic Senate expressed concerns about the ways this new model might impact their pay  and intellectual property, college president Reyna said. The development of the new program has been on “pause” ever since, he said.

A Madera Community College banner hanging over the main walkway on campus on Aug. 28, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
A Madera Community College banner hanging over the main walkway on campus on Aug. 28, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

On Aug. 25, the Madera Community College Academic Senate issued a resolution saying it was “deeply concerned” about the direction of the pilot program and asked the college to “reconsider” participating. However, the former president of the academic senate, Brad Millar, already signed off on the formation of the program on March 7, 2021, when the college submitted its application to join the pilot.

But in its resolution, the academic senate said anyone who signed the application on behalf of the group never sought approval from its members. When the members of the academic senate did discuss the program on Nov. 18, 2022, it “failed to garner support,” according to the resolution.

“In concept, there are many benefits,” Bill Turini, president of the Madera Community College Academic Senate, told CalMatters. One potential concern is that the model could lead to less qualified teachers in some instances, he said. He said the program is “still an abstraction” but pointed to other, simpler changes that he said yield similar results, such as more online instruction and flexible start dates.

Madera Community College is the newest community college in the state, officially recognized in 2020. It is part of a large district that includes Fresno City College, Clovis Community College, and Reedley College. None of the other schools in the district are participating in the pilot.

“Any policy that we want to change at Madera Community College to accommodate competency-based education, it impacts the three other colleges,” Reyna said.

East Los Angeles College is the only college participating in the pilot among a nine-college district. It’s the largest community college district in the nation. It’s been slow to implement some of the changes required by the pilot program, but success there could make it easier for other colleges in the district to follow.

“When you talk to faculty who’ve been here longer than 10 years and their picture of an East Los Angeles College student, they envision a 20-year-old student taking 15 units (full-time) at the Monterey Park campus. We’ve now grown to an older student population,” said Leticia Barajas, a faculty member and president of the college’s academic senate. “This is about institutional transformative change.”

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association’s Reporting Fellowship program. Adam Echelman covers California’s community colleges in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education.

    The State of the Labor Movement

    EASTHAMPTON — At 92 years old, Bob Jensen has spent nearly all his life in the labor movement. A union bricklayer who arrived in western Massachusetts on a football scholarship at American International College, he ended up becoming a labor educator at the University of Connecticut, a negotiator with the American Federation of Teachers and an active organizer locally.

    As Jensen surveys the state of organized labor in western Massachusetts and beyond, after decades involved in workers’ struggles locally and nationwide, he said there’s a lot to be optimistic about.

    “Workers are fed up in every area,” he said, from airline pilots to baristas. “They’re organizing to demand what is rightfully theirs.”

    Jensen was addressing a large gathering of union members, activists and organizers celebrating Labor Day at the Western Mass Area Labor Federation’s picnic in Easthampton on Sunday.

    As a wave of high-profile union organizing continues to sweep across the country, including in western Massachusetts, several recent nationwide polls have found that support for unions is higher than it has been in decades. After a summer of strikes and almost strikes, from actors and writers to UPS drivers, 2023 may see the most U.S. workers walking off the job since the 2018 “Red for Ed” teacher strikes.

    Western Massachusetts has had its own moment in the spotlight, too, amid all of that organizing. Since last summer, Hadley has been home to several “firsts” in unionizing large corporate chains: Trader Joe’s last July, Barnes & Noble this May and Michael’s last month. Educators across the region fought public battles for new contracts, retail workers walked off the job, nurses picketed the loss of hospital beds and daycare workers in Springfield went out on strike.

    Now, as the summer comes to a close, labor organizers and union leaders around the area are reflecting on the rejuvenated state of the labor movement in western Massachusetts and the struggles they see ahead.

    “It definitely feels like there’s a new energy and excitement,” Max Page, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, told The Shoestring. “So often, we’re like: ‘Everything sucks.’ Now we’re like: ‘What can we achieve.’”

    Page is part of the rank-and-file, activist caucus within the MTA — Educators for a Democratic Union — that over the past 10 years has reshaped the union’s vision to fight aggressively for progressive policies inside and outside of the classroom. Last year, the MTA successfully put forward a ballot question that raised taxes on the state’s millionaires to better fund education and transportation — an initiative Page said that western Massachusetts turned out in large numbers to vote for in November, playing a vital role in its passage. The union has also supported educators across the state going out on strike, despite the fact that state law bars public employees from striking.

    Now, the MTA is prioritizing two long-time goals of education activists: scrapping Massachusetts’ high-stakes MCAS testing and making public higher education debt-free for the state’s students.

    “This is the year to win it,” he said.

    The past year, immigrant workers have also seen some of the fruits of their longtime struggles for economic and racial justice.

    In a phone interview with The Shoestring, Pioneer Valley Workers Center Executive Director Claudia Rosales said that immigrant workers and their families won a major victory this year when, in July, undocumented immigrants could begin applying for driver’s licenses in Massachusetts. After years of organizing work by the Workers Center and other groups across the state, state lawmakers last year passed the Work and Family Mobility Act — a major priority for immigrant workers and their allies across the state.

    “It’s so important because it stops families from being separated by detentions on the part of ICE,” Rosales said, using the acronym for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

    Now, Rosales said, the next legislative priority for local farm workers is challenging the state’s minimum wage law. After a five-year hike to the minimum wage, workers in Massachusetts earn a minimum wage of $15 per hour. However, agricultural laborers are exempt from that law, meaning employers can pay them as little as $8 per hour.

    “We need to get that off the books,” she said.

    Those who have spent decades organizing workers locally expressed optimism that now is the time to win victories like those.

    Jeff Jones first got involved in the local labor movement as a Stop &s Shop worker in the 1980s. Now the president of UFCW Local 1459 and the executive board of the Western Mass Area Labor Federation, he said those entering the workforce now are increasingly organizing for better pay and conditions.

    “It’s a whole new, younger generation that has come in and is eager to learn the history of the labor movement and apply it,” he said. And western Massachusetts, he added, is “one of the most progressive pockets in the labor movement,” having an outsized influence despite the region’s small size.

    Clare Hammonds, a professor at the influential UMass Amherst Labor Center, pointed to the workers unionizing at Barnes & Noble and Michael’s as an example of western Massachusetts organizers tackling big issues.

    But union membership does still remain in decline, however, despite the high-profile surge in new organizing. In 2022, union membership hit a record low of 10.1%. But Hammonds said that as more workers win unions, that winning is contagious.

    The issues those workers in Hadley and beyond are discussing — fair pay and decent hours, for example — aren’t new. What is new, she said, is the energy and support they feel from the community as they step up and take risks to improve their working conditions.

    “It feels like we’re on the cusp of something really exciting,” she said.

    Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at dusty.christensen@protonmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.

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    Rural America Added 738,000 Jobs in Last Two Years but Still Falls Short of Pre-Pandemic Employment

    Change in employment from 2019 to 2022 by county type.

    Last week’s monthly job report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics was better than expected, but another recent report from the bureau shows rural America still has a way to go to get back to pre-pandemic employment levels.

    In April the bureau released its annual average employment report for 2022. As the name implies, this report takes jobs data for the entire year and produces a single average employment number for each county in the U.S. This data provides a longer-term view than monthly reports of how the American economy is performing for working people.

    The good news is that rural America added nearly 738,000 jobs in the last two years. The bad news is that these gains didn’t completely offset the 953,000 jobs rural America lost during the first year of the pandemic.

    In 2022, there were 1.1% fewer jobs in rural counties than there were in 2019. Metropolitan counties had on average about 1% more jobs last year than before the pandemic.

    There are important regional variations on these general trends. But on average, job prospects were more limited in rural counties.

    • Rural counties had 215,00 fewer jobs in 2022 than in 2019.
    • Six out of every 10 rural counties had fewer jobs in 2022 than in 2019.
    • A majority of metropolitan counties (56%) had more jobs last year than three years ago.
    This graph compares annual employment in 2020, 2021, and 2022 to 2019. It shows that rural counties did not has as big a percentage decline in employment initially but have had slower recovery since the first year of the pandemic. (Daily Yonder/Bureau of Labor Statistics)

    Regional Variation

    • States in the Northeast, Great Lakes region, and the Great Plains had a higher percentage of rural counties that lost jobs.
    • Other regions with a larger proportion of counties with job losses were along the Texas border and gulf, the Black Belt South, coastal California, and parts of the Rocky Mountain West.
    • Fourteen states saw gains in metropolitan employment while losing jobs in rural counties.
    • States with the biggest negative gap between metro and rural employment change were Colorado (metropolitan employment grew 3.6% while rural employment fell 4.2% for a gap of 7.8 points) North Dakota (metropolitan employment grew 3.8% while rural employment fell 3.6 points, for a gap of 7.4 percentage points), and Texas (metropolitan employment grew 5.5% while rural employment remained flat, for a gap of 5.5 points).

    Variation by County Types

    • Counties in medium-sized metropolitan areas (250,000 to 999,999 residents) had the biggest growth in jobs, at 1.3% for 2022 compared to 2019.
    • The suburbs of major metropolitan areas (1 million or more residents) were a close second with a 1.1% gain in employment.
    • The core counties of major metropolitan areas and small metropolitan counties (under 250,000 residents) had growth in jobs since the pandemic, but just barely. The core counties of major metros saw job growth of 0.6% while small metros employment grew 0.3%

    Monthly Job Gains

    The most recent county-level monthly job reinforces the prospects of slow job recovery in rural counties. Rural counties added about 85,000 jobs in February 2023 compared to the previous February, a gain of 0.4%.

    Definitions: Major metros have 1 million or more residents, Medium metros have 250,000 to 999,999 residents, Small metros have under 250,000 residents. Nonmetro areas are counties that are not within a metropolitan statistical areas (OMB 2013). Nonmetro is used synonymously with rural in this analysis. Core counties are the central counties of metropolitan areas, generally containing the areas' major cities. Suburbs are metro counties lying on the periphery of these metro areas.

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