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Untraditional Programs for Nontraditional Students

Untraditional Programs for Nontraditional Students

Inside Higher Ed

Jessica Blake
October 19, 2023
Before community colleges became training grounds for people wanting to work in trade jobs or as technicians in specialized fields that didn’t require four-year degrees, students mostly learned through apprenticeships and vocational programs or got on-the-job training.
Employers now increasingly rely on community colleges to train and certify workers for these positions; they also prefer or require workers to have degrees.
“If you look back in time, how did automotive technicians learn to do their trade? They didn’t sit in a classroom for 16 weeks, take a bunch of Scantron tests, and then all of a sudden, they can fix the carburetor,” said Randy Beach, faculty curriculum committee chair at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Calif. “They were on the ground; they had their hands in the work.”
Southwestern students and their peers at seven other California community colleges may have more opportunities for this type of hands-on learning by participating in a pilot program based on an alternative degree model known as competency-based education, or CBE. It focuses less on traditional classes or grades and more on skill building and mastery, through real-life scenarios, hands-on demonstrations and simulations, allowing students to earn a degree at their own pace by exhibiting competency in their field of study. The program is designed for adult learners and other nontraditional students who might not succeed in standard courses, or who already have certain skills and experience and want a faster path to earn a degree.
“Although a student can get an A on a test, that doesn’t mean that they’re actually competent or have the ability to do the task,” said Brian Palmiter, an automotive technology professor at Southwestern College. “So when the idea of a CBE program was presented, I was all about it.”
The goal of CBE is to make college more accessible by providing a greater level of flexibility and individualization in how students are taught and, more importantly, in how they learn.
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