By: Van L. Davis, PhD / Associate Vice President, Higher Education Research & Policy at Blackboard Inc.

In the United States, there are an estimated 45 million adults 25 years old and older that have some college credit but no degree. Many of these adults are like Patrick Crawford, a 55-year-old Dunkin’ Donuts manager in Austin, Texas. Patrick went to community college when he was younger, but stalled out and assumed that college wasn’t for him. As he puts it, “The dream of returning to school was always with me, but I felt it was truly a dream.” But now, Patrick and thousands of adults like him are returning to finish what they started through online competency-based education programs.

What is competency-based education (CBE)? CBE is a unique educational modality that focuses on mastery rather than seat time. Unlike traditional programs that use fixed-time terms, in CBE programs students advance after they demonstrate mastery of a competency regardless of how long it takes. This makes CBE ideal for many adult students who cannot sit in a classroom for a variety of reasons, including a busy family life and/or work schedules. Additionally, with its focus on demonstrating mastery rather than sitting in a class, CBE allows working adults to leverage their existing knowledge and skills in order to more quickly complete their degree.

Instead of traditional coursework which is sometimes divorced from the daily lives of these adult students, CBE programs usually focus on real-world projects that allow students to apply their knowledge and skills. For working adults who have often gained considerable knowledge and skills through their employment, CBE allows them to leverage their existing knowledge to more quickly move through the material and graduate. Additionally, these sorts of projects provide working adults with new knowledge and skills that they can immediately apply in their jobs. Online CBE programs also leverage a number of support systems to help these working adults successfully complete a degree. For example, programs like Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America or Texas A&M University-Commerce’s Texas Affordable Baccalaureate program use coaches that provide online students with advising and counseling support. These coaches work with students each week, providing them with encouragement while they shepherd students through the program and make sure they stay on track to graduate.

Van L. Davis, Ph.D., Associate Vice President
Higher Education Policy and Research, at
Blackboard, Inc. also sits on the board of PelotonU in Austin, Texas. PelotonU helps non-traditional working students complete online degree programs with funding, grants and a supportive workspace for students.

But sometimes adult CBE students need even more support as they try to navigate lives full of family, work, and school obligations. Enter boots-on-the-ground organizations like PelotonU, a nonprofit organization in Austin, Texas that helps local adults enrolled in online CBE programs. PelotonU’s mission is “to provide working adults with a pathway and the support to graduate from college on-time and debt-free.” PelotonU accomplishes this goal by providing its students with an additional level of face-to-face support in the form of personal coaching and tutoring in its Austin office, along with the opportunity for additional scholarship money to help graduate with a college degree debt-free.

This extra personalized support is critical for many CBE students. 67 percent of PelotonU’s students have previously attended college but, like Patrick, were unable to complete their degree. Once they are accepted into PelotonU, students complete a trial period before they even begin their formal academic coursework through one of several online CBE programs. During the trial period, students complete a college preparatory curriculum as well as receive training on effective study skills, time management, and financial literacy. Once this period is complete, students begin their formal studies in a regionally accredited online CBE program. During their academic program, PelotonU students continue to receive face-to-face academic and social support, spending twelve hours in the PelotonU office each week and meeting with their personal college completion coach. This support, along with the academic community that students are immersed in, has led to an 80 percent retention rate which is a full 20 percent higher than the average United States college retention rate. As a result, 90 percent of PelotonU students are on track to graduate with a degree on-time. In comparison, only 15 out of every one hundred Texas college students complete a credential.

Online CBE programs are giving adult students like Patrick the opportunity to do what many have only dreamed of—complete a college degree. Because of these programs and support groups like PelotonU, these students are finishing what they started and earning a college degree that leads to a better life for them and their families.

Photos by: AFP Julia Robinson

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