All-you-can-learn tuition takes off

How flat-rate tuition models are being used to better serve nontraditional students

Adult students are treating themselves to a higher ed buffet through a handful of programs where all-you-can-learn tuition lets them move as quickly as they can toward a degree and advancement in the workforce.

Several “all-you-can-learn” programs now in place at U.S. institutions work on the competency-based learning model, in which the credit-hour has been abandoned as one of the key measurements of learning. Instead, these students pay a flat rate for a period of time, generally four to six months, during which they work to master sets of skills instead of traditional, semester-length classes.

This flips the traditional higher education model, in which courses are organized on a semester schedule that does not take into account what students have learned, says Bob Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University, an online institution.

“Real competency-based education means you measure learning rather than time—and that means time becomes the variable and learning is constant,” Mendenhall says.

All-you-can-learn programs also mean new business models and new ways of educating students, says Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University. But the programs can be self-sustainable financially and teach more than just vocational skills. LeBlanc’s institution launched the online “College for America” all-you-can-learn program last year.

“For a lot of people, ‘competency-based’ sounds vocational, like basic skills—the inference is that you can’t do competency around higher learning or critical-thinking skills or the humanities,” LeBlanc says. “But competencies can work equally as well with critical thinking, problem solving and English as they work with foundational skills, like writing and math.”

Below are snapshots of three institutions with all-you-can-learn programs that allow adult learners to work at an accelerated pace and on their own schedule in the hopes of getting accredited degrees at lower costs.

Western Governors University: Return on investment

The pioneering—and still largest scale—all-you-can-learn program may be at Western Governors, which has about 43,000 students overall. Competency-based programs run on six-month terms that cost about $3,000, which allows students to take as many courses as they want. Another key aspect of competency-based education is that students can get credit for the skills they have when they enroll, and graduate more quickly.

“Our model provides an incentive for the student to go faster,” Mendenhall says. “If you’re able to dedicate the time and effort or you come with a lot of competencies, your degree is going to cost you less.”

Tuition at Western Governors covers most online textbooks and assessments. There are additional fees for some programs, such as teaching and nursing. The competencies are divided into self-paced, online courses. There are no lectures, so each faculty member’s role is to mentor students and lead online discussions, he says.

Students take assessment tests only when they and their mentors agree they are ready to demonstrate a competency. The tests range from computer-scored assessments to projects, such as writing and portfolios, Mendenhall says.

Bachelor’s and master’s degrees are offered in a range of subjects, including business, information technology, teaching and health care. On average, it takes about three years to get a degree at Western Governors, which would cost about $18,000. About three percent of students earn a bachelor’s degree in a year, he says.

Surveys done by the university show that its 30,000-plus graduates have an opportunity to cover the costs of their degrees. On average, students earn $9,000 a year more the first one to three years after graduation than they had earned before getting their degrees, Mendenhall says.

That would mean graduates who paid the average $18,000 for a degree have a shot at making the money back within two years. “I don’t think there’s a university in the country that has a two-year return on investment,” he adds.

Western Governors also is in the business of educating other colleges and universities. It offers seminars twice a year for institutions looking to create similar programs. The U.S. Department of Labor and the Gates Foundation have given grants to Western Governors to help community colleges develop all-you-can-learn, competency-based programs, Mendenhall says.

Southern New Hampshire University: College for America

College for America began at Southern New Hampshire in January 2013 and now has about 500 students. The program offers a general studies associate’s degree with a concentration in business. For a six-month term, students pay $1,250, and there are no additional fees for textbooks or technology.

Instead of credit hours and courses, students must demonstrate a set of 120 competencies that were designed with the needs of employers in mind, LeBlanc says.

The competencies, says Colin Van Ostern, director of marketing at SNHU, are “can-do” statements, such as:

  • can use marketing terminology and concepts,
  • can generate a variety of approaches to addressing a problem,
  • can distinguish fact from opinion, and
  • can convey information by creating charts and graphs.

Students demonstrate competencies by completing projects based on workplace situations, such as analyzing proposals from two vendors and writing an evaluation, he explains.

College for America is currently designing additional associate’s degree concentrations, in health care and retail, among other subjects. It also is developing a four-year degree in communications, LeBlanc says.

The “all-you-can-learn” model required development of a specialized LMS. SNHU also had to work with the U.S. Department of Education to manage the disbursement of financial aid to students whose studies aren’t measured in credit hours, LeBlanc says.

Another big step in this type of program is getting buy-in from faculty. “Competency models can be hard to sell on traditional campuses because they can feel threatening to faculty,” he says. “Our faculty see us making a real investment in the traditional campus, so this doesn’t feel threatening. And I think the mission resonated with them—our competency-based program reaches out and serves students who are otherwise not coming to campus.”

The lower-tuition model depends on a higher volume of students to be successful. LeBlanc says the model can be self-sustaining at scale. “Competency-based models are being embraced because they promise lower costs to students. But that disrupts the business model of institutions that are struggling to keep top-line revenues up.”Northern Arizona University: Unlimited access

Northern Arizona University: Unlimited access

The online Personalized Learning program at Northern Arizona, which started in June 2013, offers bachelor’s degrees in small business administration, computer information technology and liberal arts. Students pay $2,500 for six months of unlimited access to online courses, including all course materials.

The program now has about 130 students—and it is adding about one student each day, says Fred Hurst, Northern Arizona’s senior vice president for extended campuses.

Before starting a course, students take a version of the final exam and can potentially test out of all or portions of the course. “It honors what they already know—students get bored when they have to review material that they already know well,” Hurst says. “Students do much better when they are challenged on an ongoing basis.”

The program offers students multiple learning methods. For example, students can watch video lectures or multi-media presentations, or play games. If students have trouble with one method, they can switch.

Students choose to take the final assessments when they feel like they are ready. Students must earn an 86 percent to pass. Students who don’t get that score don’t flunk—they can go back into the course and study the concepts they didn’t understand. Students also don’t have to complete all courses in six months. If, for example, they are halfway through a course at the end of six months, they can sign up for another term.

“All of the research tells us the longer a student is in a program, the less likely they are to finish,” Hurst says. “Getting a student through the process as quickly as they can, and yet ensuring they have a mastery of the subject matter, is really important.”

The Personalized Learning program keeps a traditional transcript of what the student studied but also gives students a “competency transcript” designed to show employers what skills the student has mastered, Hurst says.

Rather than simply listing that a student passed three history courses, the “competency transcript” would, for example, tell a potential employer that a student has learned the historical context of certain business laws and also mastered writing skills and critical thinking.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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