Competency-based education as a force for equity



In recent publications, critics and advocates of competency-based education (CBE) have raised questions about whether or not CBE advances the cause of equity in education. This article offers a response, by way of a case study, describing an open-admissions CBE program for adult students with graduation rates over double the US national average. Exploring this program's success, the article argues that CBE can advance equity, but doing so requires research-based understanding of, institution-wide respect for, and mission-focused commitment to adult and other “nontraditional” learners.

1 Introduction

Critics argue and supporters worry that competency-based education (CBE) will deepen educational and, by extension, socioeconomic inequity by allowing the already privileged to customize and accelerate their education, while the underprivileged languish in workforce training masquerading as higher education. They are right to be concerned. Not because CBE leads inevitably to inequity, it does not, but because building and sustaining CBE programs that advance equity is no easy task.

To illustrate this challenge as well as to demonstrate what is possible, this article presents a case study of one CBE program that has transformed the lives of learners and their communities. The Adult Learning BA (ALBA) program at All Hallows College in Dublin, Ireland admitted students from 2009 to 2014 and will end in 2017, offering an example of a CBE program from its start to its wind down. In addition, the Irish context introduces affordances that challenge some common assumptions in the United States about how and for whom CBE programs work. Based upon institutional data, faculty research, and a week of presentations by and conversations with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and external reviewers, this article explores the significance of this program in the context of ongoing debates about equity and CBE. It argues that to be a force for equity, as the ALBA program has been, CBE programs must not only include features like specific design elements (e.g., Jobs for the Future, 2016) and high-impact practices (Kuh, 2008), but they must also have an institutional culture and holistic competence model grounded in research on, respect for, and responsiveness to the lives of the learners in the program.

2 The Equity Question

Three recent essays highlight the questions being raised about CBE and equity. Steven C. Ward (2016) ignores the progressive roots of some competency-based programs and dismisses all as a betrayal of the goals of liberal education:

[P]roponents of CBE in all forms are forcing students (particularly the underserved in lower-tier institutions, whom they claim to be helping) into a “knowledge-less” version of liberal learning … they are responsible for generating new hierarchies between those who receive a cheap, fast food-style or “good enough” education from those who receive a quality one … CBE essentially gives up on this dream of democratizing knowledge.

Ward expresses a common critique that can be found in the comments section of many articles that mention CBE. Yet, concerns about the impact of CBE on educational equity are not just being raised by the zealous opposition.

Carol Geary Schneider, recently retired President of American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), taught in the DePaul University CBE program upon which the ALBA program was based. Schneider (2016) has stated that she supports competency-based learning “in principle,” and AAC&U's LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes have informed the development of several competence frameworks. Nevertheless, Schneider, 2016 essay “Quality, Inequity, and Disruptive Innovation” characterized some “so-called ‘competency-based’ courses” as nothing more than multiple choice test banks and echoed Ward's concern for the fate of democratized liberal education.

The choice before us is this: Will we shape our digital and other innovations to create a genuinely empowering and liberating education for all those who seek postsecondary learning, whatever their background, income, race, or ethnicity? Or will we continue as a society to do what we have always done: provide high-quality education to the most fortunate, while providing thin, narrowly construed “credentials” to “another class of persons” who must “fit themselves” for a very limited future?

While Ward and Schneider are concerned that CBE might mean dumbed-down education for the masses, Jobs for the Future (JFF) (2016) raises a different concern—that CBE threatens educational equity by privileging the already privileged: “these programs typically serve students who are already well prepared for higher education, leaving out a significant number of academically underprepared, low-income adults who may benefit tremendously from a faster route to college completion” (p. 1). Jobs for the Future has worked to expand understanding of CBE, publishing ten reports on it since November 2012, and receives funding from the Lumina and Gates Foundations, both of which have been strong CBE supporters.

In “Expanding Competency-Based Education for All Learners,” Jobs for the Future (2016) advances seven design elements and program features, such as targeted orientation and intrusive advising, compiled from participants at a convening of educators, policymakers, and researchers who have expertise on CBE and underprepared adult learners. Checklists such as these can be useful both for those new to CBE as they develop programs and for those already immersed in CBE as they advocate for resources. However, programs, CBE or otherwise, that work for the educationally underserved must be more than the sum of their elements and features. The ALBA program illustrates this point.

3 Why Look at ALBA?

ALBA is an outlier in many respects. It is not online, not big, not in the United States, and does not select for those most likely to succeed. It is an open-admissions CBE program for adults that admitted 216 students over five and a half years. Yet, what most distinguishes the ALBA program from the norm, and what makes it worth considering, is its success. The average graduation rate of students over 24 in the United States is 31%, and only 7% of part-time adult students complete in 6 years (Erisman & Steele, 2015, p. 10). In comparison, 71% of ALBA students graduate with a degree and an additional 7% earn a certificate or diploma even though 60% attend part-time. This completion rate is all the more remarkable because applicants need not have finished high school. On a 2014 survey completed by 94 of all 216 ALBA students, 76% of respondents indicated that they had no previous experience in higher education, and a third came from neighborhoods with lower than average participation in higher education. Figure 1 shows the number of survey respondents from Dublin neighborhoods where as few as 15% and as many as 99% of residents participated in higher education (Higher Education Authority, 2015, p. 44). The green line indicates the average participation rate in Dublin of 47% (Ireland, Higher Education Authority, 2015, p. 44). In short, ALBA students graduate at exceptionally high rates despite not necessarily being well prepared for nor encouraged to pursue higher education.

Figure 1.

Number of ALBA students from areas with 15%–99% participation in Higher Education

Students have not just graduated from the ALBA program, they have been transformed by it and many go on to transform the lives of others. As one student reported, “ALBA has changed ‘I can't’ to ‘I can!’ … This degree has given me an interest in life I never thought I would have … It has already enhanced my work with 160 boys in the school where I currently work” (Qtd. in All Hallows College, 2014a, Adult learning and education centre, p. 12). An ALBA graduate, who left school at 15 and was an unemployed bricklayer, now works with Irish Traveler children as a primary School Completion Officer.1 Other ALBA graduates include Bernie, who left school at 17 and is now completing a PhD in Education; Mary, who works with refugees and asylum seekers; Mark, who is pursuing a graduate degree in Childcare, Health and Social Care; Victoria, who works as a family mentor in a home visit program; Suzi, who is a community development worker; and Paul, who helps develop and support social enterprise initiatives (McConigley & Baker, 2016, pp. 94–100). Brid Harrington (2016) sums up their experience:

This was education at its best, through ALBA, we were enabled to explore our world so that the learning will continue as each of us makes a solo journey through life. But that journey is now framed in a unique way, which enables each of us ALBA graduates to make a more valuable contribution to our community. (p. 68)

ALBA is a force for equity not only in providing access to education, but also in graduating students who have the skills, abilities, and confidence to contribute to their communities. When asked in the 2014 survey about how their education has benefited them, ALBA graduates identified knowledge of their field, communication and critical thinking skills, the ability to apply theory to practice, an understanding of self and others, and the ability to consider multiple perspectives. However, confidence, which appeared in 45% of all open-ended responses, was the benefit graduates most often mentioned. As these example responses demonstrate, it is confidence grounded in the recognition of the skills and abilities they have developed that has powered these students forward:

  1. “I would be unemployed without having completed ALBA. I found confidence in myself and my abilities.”
  2. “Because of completing my degree, I now recognize and acknowledge my capabilities and abilities, I know who I am and what I stand for. This has given me huge confidence and very recently I applied for and was successful in getting a promotion in work.”
  3. “It has been a transformative experience. I have gained confidence and have lost my fear of public speaking. I have become a more critical thinker.”

External examiner Tess Maginess (2016) of Queen's University, Belfast, recently affirmed the quality and impact of the ALBA program in her 2015–2016 evaluation:

I have spent over 20 years in adult education, and I have never come across a BA program which so richly delivers a vision of what adult education—and mainstream education should be … “Scaffolded” to enact a real progression and learning from the experiential to the conceptual, involving real training in creative and critical thinking; Linked to employment and transferrable skills, enabling enjoyment and love of learning; Tackling disadvantage; Offering realistic, pragmatic support—care, caritas. It should be replicated internationally—a gem of a programme, inspirational. (emphasis in original)

At the Aontas Adult Learning Festival held at All Hallows College in February 2016b, two previous external examiners expressed similar sentiments about the excellence of the ALBA program.

While ALBA is worth understanding because of what it has accomplished, it is also an instructive case because of the similarities and differences between higher education in Ireland and the United States. In both countries, there have been efforts to increase the number of college-educated adults by easing transfer between institutions, educating mature workers, increasing prior learning assessment, and building stackable credentials (Erisman & Steele, 2015; Ireland, Department of Education and Skills, SOLAS, 2014). Equity in education is a stated priority of the Irish Government, which sees education and training as enabling a policy of “active inclusion,” which enables “every citizen, notably the most disadvantaged, to fully participate in society and this includes having a job” (Ireland, Department of Education and Skills. SOLAS, 2014, p. 7). Similarly, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (2014) stated, “The Obama administration is committed to partnering with educators to ensure equity in education. So that all students—all students—can succeed in school, in careers, and ultimately in life.”

However, the Irish context also introduces differences that challenge prevailing assumptions in the United States about who can succeed in CBE programs and how learners might enter and exit such programs. Not only did ALBA admit and graduate students who did not have the equivalent of a high school diploma, their admission process inverted the US norm. Rather than the school choosing the students, ALBA students were invited to decide whether they choose the program during a short, prematriculation course, Learning Assessment Seminar. This extended entrance ramp is paired in the ALBA program with four possible exit ramps. Students can earn a credential after completing 12, 24, 36, or 48 learning outcomes. The sections that follow go into more detail about the ALBA program, describing the financial model, students, approach to adult and competency-based education, curriculum model, and student learning journey. This article concludes by considering the reasons for and the challenge of ALBA's success.

4 Is It Viable? The ALBA Financial Model

By its fourth year of operation, the ALBA program was earning a small profit of just over $9,000 for All Hallows College. That said, the fact that the program is ending, the small size of the program, and the degree of attention that students report experiencing all raise the question of financial viability. The end of the program has nothing to do with its competency-based design, but is the result of All Hallows College closing. While ALBA was earning a profit, All Hallows had a growing deficit and shrinking enrollment. This situation was due primarily to the Irish economic collapse and a national push to consolidate higher education institutions that resulted in little funding for small, nonprofit colleges and their students.

Like All Hallows, ALBA faced the challenge of very limited financial support from public and private sources. While most first-time, full-time Irish students receive generous support from the government, part-time and returning students do not. ALBA's yearly tuition of $2,429 for part-time students and $4,854 for full-time students is low by US standards, but it is more than the $3,500 dollars that would be the most that first-time, full-time students would expect to pay under Ireland's Free Fee Initiative. Part-time and returning students are not eligible for Free Fees, and so must finance their own educations. For students without any transfer or prior learning credit, it would take between roughly $12,000 and $18,000 to complete the Honours bachelor's degree.

For the first 3 years of the ALBA program, donors provided All Hallows College with roughly €125,000 a year in seed funding. Given the Irish economic crash in 2008, some of this donor funding provided an important source of tuition support for students in need while some helped the program cover initial start-up costs. In addition, just under 30% of ALBA students were laid-off aviation technology workers who received special funding for full-time study from the EU Globalization Fund and the Irish government. The arrival of this cohort of full-funded students enabled the program to cover costs much earlier than originally anticipated. Other than these initial donors and the one-time government funding, ALBA received no public or private support. Table 1 shows ALBA's revenue and expenses in the 2013–2014 academic year, the final year in which the ALBA program admitted students.

Table 1. ALBA 2013–2014 finances
35 Full-Time Students (each €4,350 per annum)€152,250
93 Part-Time Students (each €2,175 per annum)€202,275
Total Revenue€354,525
Core staff salaries (three full-time and one part-time staff)€132,686
Adjunct Faculty€108,777
Other Direct Costs (consumables, room hire, refreshments, meals, travel, accommodations, printing, advertising, graduation costs, ex-campus costs)€24,600
Indirect Costs€79,500
Total Expenses€345,563
Net Income€8,962

In sum, despite the lack of funding, the program operated with a small profit margin and was self-financing by its fourth year. For much of its operation, ALBA's staff resources were focused on internal operational development, rather than on marketing and outreach. This focus on operations was the result both of being a new and unique program and of the large, and unexpected, intake of the aviation group at a very early stage in the program. In addition, a senior staff vacancy in the third year of operation meant that marketing efforts were further limited. As a result of the limited marketing and recruitment, the ALBA program faced a challenge when the remaining former aviation technology workers would graduate. Before the closing of All Hallows was announced, ALBA staff had begun working to secure its long-term financial health by adding more short-term certificates, expanding to off-site, community-based locations, and growing to at least 159 part-time students, which was its break-even point with a fully part-time student population. This target was achievable given both the large potential market for part-time adult learning in Ireland and the ongoing interest in the ALBA program. When the program had to stop admitting students, it had to turn away a cohort of about 15 students who had completed the preadmissions seminar and were ready to begin the program.

This small, high-touch program kept its expenses to a minimum by operating as a mission-focused, community-based, non-for-profit rather than as a large, higher education enterprise. Thus, it did not have the overhead associated with more comprehensive institutions, such as research support, science laboratories, and an extensive full-time faculty. With a mission of transforming adult lives through education, ALBA focused exclusively on teaching, had a limited, humanities and social science-based curriculum, and a small core staff. This core staff of one full-time administrator, two full-time lecturers, and one part-time lecturer served multiple roles, including teaching, advising, mentoring, assessing, developing curriculum, and administering the program. They were supplemented with a larger adjunct lecturer and mentor team that expanded and contracted as needed. One of the full-time lecturers was a member of a religious order, and so was paid at reduced rate. The others received salaries that were not at the top, but also not at the bottom, of the Irish salary scales for lecturers (Teachers’ Union of Ireland, 2016). Essentially, this was a social enterprise approach to higher education that allowed costs to stay low, but depended upon a dedicated staff and left no cash in reserve to undertake new initiatives.

5 Who are ALBA Students?

ALBA students are diverse. They include retirees and young parents, those who left school at 14 and those who were earning a second college degree, those who were unemployed and those who needed a degree to be promoted, those who had always loved school and those who had not (Larkin, Kilgallon, & Breathnach, 2015, pp. 6–7). The survey conducted in April 2014, just before the college announced its closing, provides a demographic snapshot of these students. Forty-four percent of all ALBA students responded to the survey. At that time, 12 had graduated while 82 were current students. Half had been in the program for 3–5 years, 37% had been in for less than 3 years, and 13% for 5–6 years. Respondents were roughly equally divided in terms of their progress through the program, with 22% less than a quarter of the way through, 23% a quarter to a half complete, 28% a half to three quarters done, and 27% three quarters or more done.

ALBA attracted older students, many of whom had been out of school for several years. No survey respondents were under 30; 40% were in their 50s; and 23% were 60 or older. Most (56%) had last been in school over 20 years prior to entering ALBA, and most (53%) were last in secondary school. The maturity of ALBA students is not surprising given Ireland's lack of funding for part-time students. Without this part-time funding, financing education is difficult for younger, working adults who cannot attend school full time and who often earn less and have more family expenses than those whose children have grown. In addition, most of the laid-off aviation technology workers were middle-aged. These students were unique because they attended ALBA full time, and they were overwhelmingly male. Most ALBA students (65%) were women, and 75% were caring for dependents.

6 Approach to Competency-Based Education

ALBA's approach to competency-based education for adults was shaped by the dual influences of the European Union's Bologna Process and the Bachelor of Arts with an Individualized Focus Area at DePaul University's School for New Learning (Larkin et al., 2015, p. 4). Ireland is a member of the European Union (EU), and All Hallows College was run by the same order of Catholic priests as DePaul University, where the School for New Learning (SNL) has offered a competency-based program for students 24 and older since 1972.

The Bologna Process is the EU's attempt to promote higher education, advanced training, and lifelong learning across Europe by easing barriers to transfer between institutions and countries; achieving broad agreement upon definitions of and ways of documenting, assessing, and certifying learning outcomes; and promoting recognition of prior learning (European Commission, 2015, pp. 25–26). As such, it is a more centralized and bureaucratic attempt to do the work currently being lead in the United States largely by a collection of nonprofit organizations such as the Lumina Foundation's Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), ACC&U's Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP), the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning's (CAEL's) promotion of prior learning assessment, and the Competency-Based Education Network's (C-BEN's) emerging quality standards.

The School for New Learning's approach to adult learning and competence framework provided ALBA with a practical blueprint for achieving the Bologna goals. From the SNL approach to adult learning, ALBA took several practices that have become commonplace in CBE, including continuous formative assessment, prior learning assessment, support services available when adults need them, and faculty mentoring. In addition, the SNL-influenced approach at ALBA includes the following less common characteristics:

  1. Faculty and staff grounded in adult learning theory and practice;
  2. First enrollment experiences focused on developing “the adult learners’ self-confidence in being and becoming a competent ‘learner’” (Larkin et al., 2015, p. 11);
  3. Explicit instruction in a variety of lifelong learning strategies, including David Kolb's (2015) experiential learning model to guide students in identifying, valuing, and making meaning from their life experiences;
  4. Multiple prompts across the curriculum for reflection in and on practice as theorized by Donald Schön (1987), so that students are always being called upon to connect theory and practice;
  5. And, not only flexible pacing, but also flexible pathways, so that learners have both clear structures and meaningful opportunities to customize their degree.

Building on this approach to adult learning, the ALBA program based its curriculum on SNL's 50-competence framework (See Klein-Collins, 2012, pp. 25–27, for an overview of this framework), while “customizing its model of competence-based learning to the needs of Ireland and North Dublin in particular” (All Hallows College, 2016b, A centre, p. 2). The ALBA curriculum is discussed in the next section and outlined in Appendix 1.

Like SNL, ALBA is competence based in the service of adult learning:

Grounded in the SNL model, the ALBA philosophy and pedagogy is firmly set in andragogical adult learning dialogical methodology, is learning outcome (competency) focused, and values the experience of each student as being at the heart of the learning that takes place. There is a partnership approach to the educational relationship between student and “teacher” … and consequently the student is at the centre of all aspects of the design, planning, and implementation of the degree. It is, literally, a student's own degree programme of learning. (Larkin et al., 2015, p. 10)

The outcomes focus of competency-based programs is particularly well aligned with four of Malcolm Knowles, Holton, and Swanson's (2012) six principles for adult learning: that adults prefer to know what, how, and why they are learning; that adults are focused on learning so that they can do things in the world; that adults see themselves as and desire to be self-directing; and that life experiences are a resource for adult learners. A competence framework also facilities the recognition of learning no matter when or where it happens, this includes recognition of prior learning for purposes of Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) as well as current learning in workplaces and communities. As a result, adults can not only accelerate their time to degree, but also connect and apply their academic learning to the rest of their lives, facilitating learning transfer (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999). Finally, a CBE design works for adult learners at ALBA and elsewhere because it does not just allow for, but finds value in, the realities of adult lives, “including the demands of work and family. This necessitates enabling the adult learner to choose and pace their own learning journey … The key to this is the use of the learning outcome competence-based approach” (All Hallows College, 2016b, Making, p. 9; Larkin et al., 2015, p. 11).

ALBA students confirmed the value of this CBE-enabled, flexible, adult-focused curriculum in their responses to the survey question, “Why would you recommend others to come and study on the ALBA program?” As Table 2 shows, they valued most highly the opportunities for choice and flexibility.

Table 2. Most common responses to “Why would you recommend others to come and study on the ALBA program?”
  1. Variety/choice in curriculum (n = 44)
  2. Flexibility (n = 28)
  3. Support (n = 26)
  4. For adults (n = 18)
  5. Friendly + atmosphere (n = 17)
  6. Transformation/development (n = 16)
  7. Faculty/staff (n = 15)

Ultimately, any education that claims to prepare students for lifelong learning needs to not just accommodate but integrate life beyond the classroom door into the learning environment. This is how deep, transformative learning happens—by starting from and returning to adults’ lives (All Hallows, 2016a, A centre, p. 1).

7 The ALBA Curriculum Model

The core of the ALBA curriculum is composed of four strands, each with nine “learning outcomes.” ALBA uses the terms “learning outcomes” for competence statements such as the following:

  1. Can pose questions and use methods of formal inquiry to answer questions and solve problems.
  2. Can define and analyze a creative process.
  3. Can analyze issues and problems from a global perspective (All Hallows College, 2014b, Adult Learning BA, p. 32).

The four strands of the ALBA curriculum are the (1) adult learning, (2) arts and ideas, (3) human development, and (4) professional focus strands. Details about the requirements for each strand can be found in Appendix 1. Each strand is composed of nine learning outcomes. Students can demonstrate outcomes by taking ALBA modules or through prior learning assessment (PLA), called recognition of prior learning (RPL) in Ireland.

The adult learning strand is composed of nine required outcomes that are designed to develop the knowledge and skills adults need for lifelong learning as well as academic success. It includes not only critical thinking, writing, research, and quantitative reasoning, but also ethical acting, collaborative learning, community engagement, and stepping outside of one's comfort zone to learn about oneself as a learner. Students cannot use PLA for these required outcomes.

Students complete nine outcomes in each of the arts and ideas and human development strands, but only one outcome is required in each strand. For the remaining eight outcomes, students must demonstrate one outcome in each substrand, but are otherwise free to pick among a variety of options. Thus, for arts and ideas, a student must complete the ethical acting outcome and one outcome each from the interpreting the arts, creative expression, and reflection and meaning substrands. After that, the student chooses five more outcomes from any of the arts and ideas offerings. The human development strand works in the same way (see Table 3).

Table 3. Liberal learning substrands
Arts and ideas substrands:
  1. Interpreting the arts
  2. Creative expression
  3. Reflection and meaning
Required: Ethical acting in the contemporary world
Human development substrands:
  1. Individual development
  2. Communities and societies
  3. Institutions and organizations
Required: Power and justice

The arts and ideas strand focuses on skills developed in the humanities, such as creativity, analysis and reflection. Of these, ALBA faculty and students at the 2016 Aontas Adult Learning Festival repeatedly marveled at the positive, transformative, and renewing impact of the creative expression substrand, which provided learners with the opportunity to explore newly discovered or long-dormant interests and abilities. In their creative work for this substrand, students stepped, however tentatively, into new learning and gained confidence as they discovered that they could do things they had not previously thought themselves capable of doing. For example, student Robert Storey (2016), whose background had been in engineering writes, that, “This was the opposite of learning engineering, all facts and figures, and allowed me to reflect on my creative abilities … I painted an icon. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life … This is something I never would have dreamed of doing and is an example of how the ALBA Programme can bring change into your life” (p. 60).

The human development strand, which is grounded in the social sciences, gives adults the opportunity to connect, compare, and contextualize their life experiences with those of others. For adults transitioning back to school, studying theories of growth and development and strategies for managing change represents just-in-time learning. For those in school because they were “made redundant,” studying the political and economic factors that drive job loss and creation will not take the sting out of unemployment, but it will help them think strategically about their future options.

In the professional focus strands, students chose from one of six focus areas, each with nine outcomes. The focus areas are: (1) Business studies, (2) Community development, (3) Education, (4) Facilitation studies, (5) Family studies, and (6) Pastoral studies. Each of the six focus areas has predefined outcome statements. However, students can replace one or more of these prewritten statements with ones they develop in conjunction with their mentor. Students who want to pursue specific interests or incorporate prior experiences and credentials also have the option of undertaking an entirely individualized focus area.

Students who complete the 36 outcomes distributed across these four strands can graduate with an Ordinary level bachelor's degree, a Level 7 degree in Ireland's National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ). Students also have the option of continuing on to an Honors level bachelor's degree by completing an additional 12 outcomes in the capstone sequence. These 12 outcomes are delivered through eight required modules:

  1. Research
  2. Creativity
  3. Globalization
  4. Internship or Practicum
  5. Externship or Uaneen Module
  6. Advanced Seminar
  7. Advanced Project
  8. Level 8 Summit Seminar

At DePaul's School for New Learning, students who fail to progress often get stuck at the first of these eight requirements, the Research module. ALBA offers struggling students a chance to walk away with a usable degree without completing the capstone sequence. At the same time, ALBA incentivizes students to strive for a challenging accomplishment by recognizing the more advanced work with an honors degree. In addition to these two bachelor's degree options, ALBA students also have earlier off and return ramps. Students can earn a Certificate for Personal and Professional Development, which is awarded upon completion of 12 learning outcomes, six of which are from the adult learning strand. Those who complete 24 learning outcomes, eight from the adult learning strand and at least one from each of the Arts and Ideas and Human Development substrands, can earn a Level 8 Diploma for Personal and Professional Development.

In other words, with every 12 outcomes and 60 European Credit Transfer (ECT) units, students have the option of stepping out with a credential. This not only gives students who cannot complete all 48 outcomes a way to demonstrate their learning in the workforce, it also chunks what can be a long learning journey into shorter segments that can seem more possible. For part-time adults who often return to higher education anxious about their ability to succeed, this is the educational equivalent of starting with a 5K run and working up to a marathon (see Table 4).

Table 4. The ALBA credential ladderThumbnail image of

Whether they finish with a certificate, diploma, ordinary, or honors bachelor's degree, each student completes a final independent project that demonstrates their ability to apply what they have learned to a problem or issue of their choosing. Final projects can be essays or artifacts accompanied by an explanation of how the artifact addresses the problem or issue. Artifacts range from paintings and poetry to business plans. While all ALBA completers do capstone projects, Gallup (2014) reports that only a third of US graduates complete projects that take a semester or longer like these final projects (p. 9). The ALBA case supports the American Association of Colleges & University's (2015) argument that such high-impact work can and should be much more common.

8 What is Unique About the ALBA Learning Journey?

In addition to the multiple exit and reentry ramps, the ALBA program also had an extended initial entry. Since applicants did not need a high school diploma, this extended application phase worked as a form of directed self-assessment in which prospective students had the opportunity to decide if ALBA would work for them through the Learning Assessment Seminar module. In this module, they learned about the ALBA program, examined their motivations for and potential challenges to returning to school, and uncovered assets that could help them be successful. As ALBA faculty explain, this preadmission module sets the stage for their ability to retain and graduate adult students:

Engagement in Higher Education requires a significant emotional investment on the part of such [adult] students. To be successful, a student seeking to undertake third level education must be ready to engage in terms of understanding both themselves, and the commitments required. This is enabled when appropriate “stepping stones” are provided to potential adult students to begin “the journey” into Higher Education … The ALBA Learning Assessment Seminar supports such potential students in considering in a meaningful manner their level of readiness, and whether they really want to undertake a course of study given the commitments involved. (All Hallows College, 2016b, Making, p. 5)

Increasingly, programs for adults in the United States are edging toward such a model by offering online self-assessments, first classes at steep discounts or for free, and/or opportunities to preview competence modules (Baker, 2015, pp. 4–6). ALBA's Learning Assessment Seminar highlights the value of not only giving perspective students the opportunity to see courses or modules, but also to see themselves as learners.

Both ALBA's admissions process and multiple exit options put students in charge of their learning journey. In addition, the four-strand structure, with its mix of required and optional outcomes, balances (1) the need to have a clear, easily navigable structure, (2) the importance of challenging learners to explore beyond the familiar, and (3) the value of being flexible enough to accommodate individual interests and goals—to be, as student Patrick Duffy (2013) called it, a “bespoke course of study.”

The ALBA program exemplifies the power of the kind of high-impact, competency-based learning Carol Geary Schneider (2016) called for in her essay. It is writing intensive, and includes an internship, service and community-based learning, undergraduate research, capstone projects, and a focus on ethics and creativity across the curriculum. None of these characteristics are unique to ALBA and all are possible for schools serving much larger online populations of adult students. The School for New Learning, for example, offers distance students, most of whom work full time, short-term study abroad trips, intern-in-place opportunities, and service learning in their communities. These elements are replicable, but not sufficient for achieving results like ALBA's.

9 What Accounts for ALBA's Success?

Adult learning expert Catherine Marieanu (2016) credits a holistic model that integrates “micro-competencies with meta-competencies; school with work, home, and community; adult life themes with multiple perspectives; liberal arts and career focus; instruction with mentoring; assessment with feedback; prior with new learning; choice with criteria.” Thus, a graduate, who now helps coordinate a national workforce development initiative, reports that, “I was studying the theory and concepts in college while putting it into practice in my work” (Qtd. in All Hallows, 2014a, Adult learning and education centre, p. 12). ALBA faculty, Siobhan Larkin, Colm Kilgallon, and Catherine Breathnach (2015) echo the themes Marienau identifies and stress the importance of a program grounded in adult learning theory that “values the experience of each student as being at the heart of the learning that takes place” (p. 2), that is flexible enough to build on those experiences and support students in pursuing new learning that is of value to them (pp. 9–11), and that challenges learners while recognizing the unique needs of adult learners for support and development (p. 11). To accomplish this, Larkin et al. (2015) argue that not only the CBE program, but also the institution in which it operates, needs to be responsive and flexible, innovative, and creative (p. 12).

In addition, the one thing ALBA students and alumni most often repeated and most passionately wanted understood was that, from the moment they began the program, they felt that they belonged. In the words of the oldest ALBA student, 77-year-old Tommy, “The atmosphere on campus is warm and friendly, with support at every hand's turn, from fellow students, young and old, staff, mentors, and lecturers. In ALBA you are never alone, left outside the loop or feeling inadequate. Comradeship is ALBA's strength.” (Qtd. in All Hallows College, 2014a, Adult learning and education centre, pp. 12–13). Several students described a sense of “being at home” on the campus, respected for what they had already accomplished in their lives and recognized as part of the ALBA learning community. Students spoke of being profoundly challenged, but never excluded or dismissed. This is a remarkable accomplishment since adults return to college with less confidence than younger students and have often had negative prior academic experiences (Kasworm, 2008; Ritt, 2008). It is also a challenge to replicate when attempting to scale CBE and create community online. It underscores the importance not only of faculty with disciplinary expertise, but also of CBE mentors, coaches, and advisors who have the training and capacity to attend to the whole person. Finally, it highlights the necessity of creating an institutional culture in which everyone, from teaching assistants to technical support, from faculty to financial aid staff, is focused on learners and learning.

It is possible that the extraordinary success of ALBA and other alternative programs for post-traditional learners, like the Tacoma Program at Evergreen State College (2015) where 84% of students are low income and 87% of students have graduated, are due at least in part to their small size which allows for a sense of belonging that can be difficult to achieve in larger programs. However, both Tacoma, which is a branch campus of Evergreen State College, and ALBA, which is one of a handful of overseas programs that have adapted the SNL model, suggest an alternative to achieving scale through supersizing one institution. They demonstrate a distributed model of scaling in which small local programs share a basic framework that they adapt to their own contexts and that might achieve economies of scale by sharing resources, faculty, and expertise, while allowing for the small size that makes a sense of connection easier.

10 Conclusion

ALBA has demonstrated that CBE can work as a force for equity. However, to do so takes a program designed from the bottom up based upon what research tells us about our learners, rather than how we may have learned. It takes communicating to each student that they have the ability to complete their degree and that, in doing so, they will discover knowledge, interests, and capacities that will transform their lives and their worlds. It takes sustaining an institutional culture that does not just accommodate, does not just celebrate, but works because of diverse individuals learning together. Carol Geary Schneider (2016) said, “The choices between a liberating or a narrow education will shape the future of underserved learners—and the future of democracy as well.” ALBA shows what is possible. The choice is ours to make.

Conflict of Interest Statement

No conflicts declared.


  1. 1

    One percent of Irish Travelers complete a college education (Ireland, Central Statistics Office, 2012).

Appendix 1: Curriculum Framework for the Bachelor of Arts for Personal and Professional Development (ALBA) at All Hallows College, Dublin City University

Learning Assessment Seminar: Can assess one's strengths and set personal, professional, and educational goals

Strand 1: Adult Learning. Nine required outcomes.

  1. Foundations of Adult Learning 1: Can use one's ideas and those of others to draw meaning from experiences.
  2. Foundations of Adult Learning 2: Can design learning strategies to attain goals for personal and educational development.
  3. Scholarly Writing: Can write clearly and fluently, that is, writing for college-level learning, thinking, and communicating.
  4. Information Technology: Can use current information technology for solutions to problems.
  5. Quantitative Reasoning: Can use mathematical symbols, concepts, and methods to describe and solve problems.
  6. Critical Thinking: Can analyze issues and reconcile problems through critical and appreciative thinking.
  7. Collaborative Learning: Can learn collaboratively and examine the skills, knowledge, and values that contribute to such learning.
  8. Ethical Acting: Can formulate a personal code of conduct and align it with a philosophical world view.
  9. Summit Seminar:
    1. Outcome for students earning Ordinary or Level 7 BA: Can articulate the personal and social value of lifelong learning.
    2. Additional outcome for students earning Honors or Level 8 BA: Can articulate a plan for lifelong learning taking account of personal and professional goals.

Strand 2: Arts & Ideas. Nine outcomes, one required. Students must choose one outcome from each of three substrands:

  1. Interpreting the Arts substrand. Sample outcome: Can analyze artistic or textual works in terms of form, content, and style.
  2. Creative Expression substrand. Sample outcome: Can perform proficiently in an art form and analyze the elements that contribute to proficiency.
  3. Reflection and Meaning substrand. Sample outcome: Can compare two or more philosophical perspectives on the relationship of the individual to the community.

Ethical Acting in the Contemporary World (required): Can analyze a problem using two different ethical systems.

Strand 3: Human Development. Nine outcomes, one required. Students must choose one outcome from each of three substrands:

  1. Communities and Societies. Sample outcome: Can understand and apply the principles of effective intercultural communication.
  2. Institutions and Organizations. Sample outcome: Can identify an organizational problem and design a plan for change based on an understanding of social science theories or models.
  3. Individual Development. Sample outcome: Can use two or more theories of human psychology to understand issues and solve problems, e.g., is the description of “mid-life crisis” warranted?

Power and Justice (required): Can analyze power relations among racial, social, cultural, or economic groups.

Strand 4: Professional Focus. Students choose one of six focus areas and then complete nine outcomes in that focus area.

  1. Pastoral Studies
  2. Facilitation Studies
  3. Business Studies
  4. Family Studies
  5. Education
  6. Community Development

Concluding or Capstone Sequence. Eight required modules with 12 learning outcomes.

  • 1.Research: Can pose questions and use methods of formal inquiry to answer questions and solve problems.
  • 2.Creativity: Can define and analyze a creative process.
  • 3.Globalization: Can analyze issues and problems from a global perspective.
  • 4.Internship or Practicum: (1) Can reflect on the practical experience in the light of one's personal goal and professional purpose. (2) Second, student-specific outcome statement to be written by student and faculty.
  • 5.Externship (or Uaneen Module): (1) Can reflect on the learning process and methods used in an experiential project. (2) Second, student-specific outcome statement to be written by student and faculty.
  • 6.Advanced Seminar: Two outcomes written by student and faculty that fulfill the following criteria:
    1. Identifies a phenomenon, problem, or event of personal significance.
    2. Identifies at least two approaches to the creation of knowledge that could appropriately be applied to (a).
    3. Evaluates the limitations and possibilities of these approaches to the creation of knowledge.
    4. Articulates a perspective in relation to this phenomenon, problem or event that integrates aspects of these approaches.
  • 7.Advanced Project: (1) Can design and produce a significant artifact or document that gives evidence of advanced outcome. (2) Second, student-specific competence statement to be written by student and faculty.
  • 8.Level 8 Summit Seminar: Can articulate a plan for lifelong learning taking account of personal and professional goals.

Completion Options

  1. Certificate (Level 8) for Personal and Professional Development = 60 European Credit Transfer units (ECTs). 12 learning outcomes, six of which come from Strand 1, Adult Learning.
  2. Diploma (Level 8) for Personal and Professional Development = 120 ECTs. 24 learning outcomes, with eight from Strand 1, Adult Learning, and one from each of the three Human Development and three Arts and Ideas substrands.
  3. Level 7: Ordinary level degree BA for Personal and Professional Development = 180 ECTs. 36 learning outcomes, with nine from Strand 1, Adult Learning, one from each of the three Human Development and three Arts and Ideas substrands, nine from Professional Focus strand.
  4. Level 8: Honours Degree BA for Personal and Professional Development = 240 ECTs. 48 learning outcomes. Level 7 Degree requirements (36 learning outcomes) plus Capstone requirements (12 learning outcomes).



    M. Navarre Cleary, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Senior Director for Innovation at DePaul University’s School for New Learning (SNL), where she leads new program development. Her research focuses on adult students, writing instruction, and competence-based learning.

  • C. Breathnach is the Director of the adult learning degree (ALBA) at All Hallows College, Dublin City University, Dublin, Ireland. Previously, she was Research Fellow at the Centre for Nonprofit Management at Trinity College, Dublin, and has worked with the Department of Adult and Community Education at Maynooth University. Catherine's PhD focused on organizational learning in not-for-profits.