College for America – A Pioneer in Competency-Based Degrees

College for America, based in New Hampshire, partners with the Kepler program in Rwanda to provide United States accreditation for Kepler’s competency-based college degrees. In 2013, Southern New Hampshire University drew media attention for its work in creating College for America. That year, the Department of Education granted approval for federal financial aid monies to be directed to the school, a first for a competency-based education program. College for America remains among the few schools in the U.S. to upend the traditional higher education model by focusing on what students know and can do, rather than the number of hours they’ve logged sitting in a classroom.

Supporters of competency-based education say it offers exciting new pathways for working-class adults and other non-traditional students to earn meaningful academic degrees that demonstrate their actual abilities. It is not unusual for American students to work at several part-time jobs in order to pay for college, leaving them little time to actually immerse themselves in learning. A high-quality competency-based model frees students and administrators alike from having to stick to a one-size-fits-all schedule. In fact, some well-qualified College for America students have obtained their fully accredited associate’s degrees in as little as a few months.

More and more experts in education have begun to analyze what American college graduates actually know. One 2006 study found that only about 30 percent could handle a rudimentary problem in consumer math. Such findings compel the question: Are university students genuinely receiving a high-quality product in return for the large tuition fees they pay each year?

The problem of providing an adequate college education at an affordable cost is even more significant for students in the developing world, who face additional challenges. Rwanda, for example, has experienced devastating recent civil wars, battles with HIV/AIDS and other diseases, and social and political disintegration.

More than a decade ago, the nonprofit group Generation Rwanda began offering scholarship funding to orphans and other socially vulnerable young people. In 2013, the organization’s focus shifted to its innovative Kepler program, which offers undergraduate degrees at a price of only $1,000 annually. Kepler combines access to massive open online courses (MOOCs) offered through leading universities with in-person dialogue, project work, and career training and counseling to achieve demonstrable educational competencies. Thanks to its collaboration with College for America, Kepler can verify that its students possess the critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration skills required to be successful in the workforce.

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