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Let’s Transform College to Better Serve Today’s Workers

Lessons From California’s Pilot of Direct Assessment CBE

May 10, 2024

At A Glance

Rigid college structures don’t meet the needs of all learners and workers in today’s economy. Direct assessment CBE could bring needed flexibility. Eight colleges are giving it a try.

Mara Lockowandt Director
Vanessa Vela Lovelace Senior Director
Holly Siino Senior Manager
Practices & Centers Topics

A look at postsecondary enrollment and completion statistics suggests that many workers and learners feel that college doesn’t meet their education and training needs. 

Undergraduate college enrollment has been decreasing across the country since 2010, and the decline has accelerated since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—especially at two-year public institutions 

In California, more than 6 million residents have attended college without receiving a degree, according to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. And 6.8 million Californians between the ages of 25 and 54 have a high school diploma but no postsecondary credential.  

While there are no doubt many reasons behind the increase in the number of people who choose to forgo college, at Jobs for the Future (JFF), we believe that one of the biggest factors may be the structure of higher education itself, which typically requires long-term commitments to degree programs. In today’s ever-evolving economy, more agile approaches to education and training would better suit a workforce made up of people who regularly need to learn new skills and gain new knowledge to ensure that they have the capabilities they need to land quality jobs.  

As Shelly Blair, dean of innovative learning and career education at Coastline College in Fountain Valley, California, said, “Our system was designed a long time ago. . . and does not work for our modern learners.”  

Overhauling higher education will require reimagining how students learn, what they learn, and how they receive credit. We believe that direct assessment competency- based education will transform how students are taught and learn in postsecondary institutions. 

Offering a personalized learning experience, direct assessment CBE emphasizes students’ mastery of subject matter, including skills and expertise they’ve acquired at work and in other activities outside of school. And it enables educators to grant credit on a flexible schedule so students can start and complete courses at any time of year rather than being required to attend class for a certain number of hours and complete assignments on a fixed schedule within the set period of a course’s start and end dates.  

Direct assessment CBE also allows adult learners and workers to accelerate their education and training when possible and engage more deeply and build new skills at a more deliberate pace when they need additional time.

Our system was designed a long time ago. . . and does not work for our modern learners.

Shelly Blair, Dean of Innovation and Career Education, Coastline College

Transformation Through Direct Assessment CBE in California

In 2021, the California Community College Chancellor’s Office and the Foundation for California Community Colleges launched a four-year pilot to build new educational models that better meet the needs of regional labor markets than current structures and to identify effective strategies for a systemwide implementation of direct assessment CBE, which became a viable option for all colleges when the state authorized its use within Calbright, the system’s online community college.  

The pilot features a community of learning approach facilitated by JFF in partnership with the Competency Based Education Network (CBEN), the Success Center for California Community Colleges, the RAND Corporation. The eight participating institutions are Bakersfield College, Coastline College, East Los Angeles College, Madera Community College, Merced College, Mt. San Antonio College, Shasta College, and Southwestern College.   

We spoke with Shelly Blair of Coastline College and Randy Beach, a professor of English and education and faculty curriculum chair at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, to gain first-person insights and ideas for this blog.  

Almost three years into the pilot, leaders at the participating colleges have found that direct assessment CBE holds the promise of transforming the postsecondary experience for learners and workers in several ways, including these: 

  • Learners move through content and progress to completion at their own pace: In traditional classrooms, all students are expected to adhere to a shared schedule for learning. That approach holds back students who learn faster and forces those who build toward mastery at a slower pace to skim or skip content. Direct assessment CBE lets students set their own pace and uses regular assessment to ensure that they master individual competencies before moving forward. 
  • Learners, especially working adults, can leverage their experience and skills to accelerate to completion: Many of today’s learners come to college with years and sometimes decades of existing knowledge and expertise. Their experience is relevant to how they engage in their learning and should be acknowledged. Direct assessment CBE “is a true equity initiative, since it starts with respect for . . . students and their lived experience,” said Beach.  
  • Students don’t lose time because they have to repeat curriculum: By emphasizing mastery of skills over completion of class units, direct assessment CBE is especially beneficial for students who have acquired skills or expertise at work or through other lived experiences because they don’t have to take classes covering subjects they’re already familiar with. In addition to accelerating time to completion, this can reduce the cost of a certificate or degree. 
  • Learners gain access to educational opportunities that accommodate their schedules: Most colleges are working to make classes and other educational activities more accessible to learners via flexible schedules and other means. But Beach noted that there are still many programs where “the focus is on how many students can be enrolled into a time slot on a schedule over a 16-week term,” which doesn’t leave much room for accommodating individual students’ needs. In addition, he said courses are often still offered on standard weekday schedules, which “might give our working students with families and obligations the tacit message that they aren’t a ‘good fit’ for college.” 
  • Faculty and coaches support learners on their journeys: In programs that use direct assessment CBE, faculty members work one on one with learners to ensure that they understand the coursework and are successfully gaining mastery of the skills, ideas, and concepts they’re studying. This learner-centered approach relieves instructors of the need to design time-bound lesson plans and course schedules and allows them to focus on learning effectiveness and facilitating student skill-building and personalized assessments—approaches that keep students engaged and motivated. Direct assessment CBE programs also invest in coaches and student support services that ensure holistic support for students on their paths to completion.

Where Are We Heading, and What’s at Stake?

The stakes are high, and there’s a strong potential for positive impact in a nation where more than 40 million people have completed some college without earning a credential. “[Many] student loan borrowers have some college credit but no degree,” Blair said. “These students have not failed out—the education system is structured to fail them.” 

“This is an equity issue,” she added. “We know higher education has a huge impact value on lifetime earnings, but these students are not likely to come back after their experience unless things change.” For Coastline College and the other colleges in California’s pilot, direct assessment programs are a critical evolution of their commitment to offering innovative and student-centered learning opportunities.   

The eight colleges in California’s pilot are on the leading edge of innovation as they search for ways to transform the educational experience and signal to current and future learners that higher education can meet their changing needs.  

These efforts have sparked internal structural adaptations in the colleges’ technology infrastructures, business operations, financial aid policies, faculty contracts, and more. And as they implement new approaches to assessing student performance and granting credit, these institutions are also navigating regulatory issues, including the need to seek changes in local and regional accreditation policies and pursue U.S. Department of Education approval for their new approaches.  

This work requires courageous leadership. The faculty, staff, and administrators at the pilot colleges are finding that they need to put a lot of effort into gaining the trust of stakeholders, building relationships with partners, and supporting the teams that keep operations humming amid the turmoil.  

Specifically, the pilot program has revealed that leaders managing the change involved in implementing direct assessment CBE programs must have the following qualities:  

  • Vision: They must have a firm understanding of what direct assessment is and what it can do for an institution, a community, and a regional economy.
  • Clarity of purpose: They should be driven by the desire to place student learning and outcomes at the center of their strategic initiatives, and they must fearlessly work to remove barriers that could limit the success of their efforts.  
  • Comfort with uncertainty and conflict: They must be able to confidently take on entrenched policies and systems and boldly do what needs to be done in order to succeed. 
  • Influence: They must be able to build trust with stakeholders and leverage their relationships with partners as vehicles for facilitating change within the college, the district, and unions and among community partners and employers. 
  • An agile mind: They must be willing and able to learn about all operational and instructional aspects of direct assessment CBE and not just focus on the areas of the student experience they’re most familiar with.  
  • Political savvy: In order to succeed, they must be able to identify and navigate the push and pull of internal and external politics that will impact their ability to implement the changes they’re proposing. This includes understanding that staff turnover and unexpected roadblocks are inevitable.  
  • Storytelling ability: Building understanding among a wide and diverse array of audiences requires the ability to clearly tell the story of the work they’re undertaking and explain the positive impact it will have.  
  • Fiscal acumen: Ensuring the success of these initiatives requires the ability to balance, braid, blend, and augment funds to cover the high and often unexpected costs of running a “startup” initiative.
  • A willingness to be a partner: They must listen to and collaborate with potential partners representing all constituencies and a wide array of perspectives throughout the design and decision-making processes.  

Ultimately, the leaders of this groundbreaking effort say that, while implementing a direct assessment CBE approach may be challenging at many levels, it’s a change that will benefit students, teachers, colleges, and educational systems by breaking apart established structures that no longer benefit all students or the mission of future-focused community colleges.  

“Since we began the direct assessment competency-based education journey, I’ve seen more college employees working across silos for the benefit of students to determine solutions for the complexities of direct assessment. Faculty are engaging with faculty in cross-discipline conversations about student-centered teaching and instructional design,” said Beach, adding that they’re also discussing “the meaning and purpose of education now that the credit hour is not our metric of learning.”

No idea is off the table. We’re working more like a team with a shared vision than I’ve seen before.

Randy Beach, Professor of English and Education, Southwestern College

Administrators are engaging more with classified professionals as collaborators looking for solutions to technology and systems challenges, and no idea is off the table,” he added. We’re working more like a team with a shared vision than I’ve seen before.”

Join Us in Transforming Education 

As California community colleges push to respond to the needs of today’s learners, leaders must drive a paradigm shift and make radical changes to educational structures.  

To keep up with the education and training needs of a changing economy and remain relevant for the workers and learners of the future, colleges need to commit to transforming education and advancing innovative teaching and learning models. Adopting direct assessment CBE will disrupt the status quo and prove to learners that postsecondary education can still meet their needs.  

As we chart a course toward a more inclusive and dynamic future, education must be more accessible, more affordable, and easier to navigate—for everyone. Direct assessment CBE can be an important piece of broad strategy to achieve those goals. 

Learn With Us, and Keep in Touch

There’s a growing ecosystem of direct assessment CBE champions in California who are committed to transforming higher education. Be sure to subscribe to JFF’s mailing list to get updates about what they’re learning in the pilot program. And visit JFF’s website for additional resources like these: