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New Competency-Based Degree Program Prepares Graduates for Workforce

An Affordable, ‘Game-Changing’ Innovation for Higher Education

By Van Davis, Director of Innovations in Higher Education at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board

In Texas, a combination of rapid population growth and concerns over economic projections has led to a rising need for work-ready college graduates. In order to achieve current higher education goals of better access and affordability, we must develop new and innovative modes of degree attainment that address these demographic, economic and policy trends.

The new Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Program aims to do just that.

South Texas College and Texas A&M University-Commerce recently launched the state’s first public competency-based baccalaureate program, a Bachelor of Applied Sciences (BAS) in Organizational Leadership. This unique, low-cost program gives students the opportunity to acquire a high-quality degree designed to provide the skills employers have identified as necessary for the 21st century, while simultaneously allowing students to accelerate completion and save on costs .

Designing a Competency-Based Program for the 21st Century

With support from a Next Generation Learning Challenges Wave IIIb grant, what began as a faculty-driven initiative of community college and university educators quickly evolved as we gained a deeper understanding of which job-ready skills are most needed in today’s workforce. Community and business leaders offered input that further informed our process.

We focused on three main principles:

  • Students learn better when instruction can be personalized to meet their needs and timetable.
  • Applied learning that involves direct faculty instruction, problem-based learning, and multiple opportunities to work with peers is especially powerful at the upper-division level.
  • Students need a degree and experiences that will prepare them for current and future workforce needs.

Employing research gathered by the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Liberal Education and America’s Promise, the foundation of the BAS degree focuses on four major competency areas: Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical & Natural World, Intellectual and Practical Skills, Personal and Social Responsibility, and Integrative & Applied Learning. These competency areas are integrated into the degree program’s three component parts: the general education core curriculum, lower-division electives, and upper-division applied coursework. Upper division coursework includes instruction in critical management skills, such as organizational planning, dynamics of leadership, finance, team building, conflict resolution and mediation, and communication, among others. Learning culminates with a digital capstone experience where students apply their knowledge and skills to real-world business problems.

Unlike other programs of its kind, the Texas model combines a self-paced, competency-based general education and lower-division elective curriculum with an accelerated cohort-based upper division curriculum.

Combining Blended Learning and Personalized Instruction

The degree’s first 90 semester credit hours at both institutions are available through shared self-paced online modules, and the remaining 30 upper-division credit hours are available through either cohort-based online instruction from Texas A&M University-Commerce, or hybrid instruction from South Texas College. 

Students are assigned fulltime professional academic coaches, who offer significant personal support, and help them to chart a path through the competency-based lower division curriculum. The coaches, who at a minimum possess a master’s degree, help learners assess the level of their existing knowledge and work through assessments to establish mastery. They also provide leadership, support, and motivation to help students to stay on track and complete the degree program in the timeliest way possible. Instruction is further personalized by the fulltime content instructors, who provide on-demand assistance as students work through competency-based modules. At a time when many institutions attempt to reduce costs by relying more on adjunct faculty at the lower-division level – including those crucial gateway courses – our program is committed to a fulltime faculty and staff model.

Dr. Dan Jones, president of partner institution Texas A&M Unviersity-Commerce, said: "This is a game-changing innovation […] that has the potential to reshape the way that we deliver higher education in Texas.” Dr. Shirley Reed, president of South Texas College, concurs. She sees the competency-based approach of the BAS as a way to “open opportunities for students who already possess the knowledge and skills to demonstrate mastery of coursework in this organizational leadership degree.” 

With seven weeklong ‘terms’ at a total cost of $750 each, the degree program should take no longer than three years for a first-time college student to complete, with a price tag of only $13,000 to $15,000. If a student has already completed general education credits, they can finish in just two years. If they come in with 90 credit hours and no credential – and Texas has thousands of such students – then they can finish in one year for $4,500 to $6,000.

As Dr. Raymund Paredes, Commissioner of Higher Education, notes, “The launch of this program answers that call and demonstrates to institutions around Texas and the nation that faculty-driven collaboration and the adoption of game-changing innovations in higher education delivery can create new, affordable pathways to degree attainment.”

Van Davis is the Director of Innovations in Higher Education at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. In addition to leading the state’s NGLC Wave IIIb grant (Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Project), he also leads the state’s adult degree completion project, GradTX, and works on a number of higher education policy issues including distance education, learning technologies, college affordability, and alternative higher education funding models. Before joining the Coordinating Board, he spent ten years as a history professor at public and private liberal arts colleges and holds a Ph.D. in 20th century US history from Vanderbilt University.

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