The Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Program

Incorporating competency-based and traditional courses, online and hybrid learning, and lower costs than a traditional degree, the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate lets students save thousands of dollars and semesters of time in obtaining a degree in organizational leadership.

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Rebecca Klein-Collins, Associate Vice President, Research, and Kathleen Glancey, Consultant, Council for Adult and Experiential Learning

A targeted collaboration among higher education entities in Texas addressed a key problem for would-be students and their families: affordability. In January 2014 the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), South Texas College (STC), and Texas A&M University–Commerce (A&M–Commerce) launched the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate (TAB) Program, the state's first competency-based bachelor degree. The program's inaugural degree, an applied baccalaureate in organizational leadership, offers a low-cost alternative to a traditional postsecondary degree. The degree is also designed to provide students with employer-identified 21st-century competencies. While gaining or demonstrating these competencies, students have the opportunity to accelerate their time to completion, reducing costs further.

The program features a blended model that combines competency-based courses and more traditionally formatted courses. Students earn the first 90 credit hours required for the degree through self-paced, online, competency-based modules, and the last 30 credit hours in either a hybrid or online format.

The TAB Student

More than 3.6 million Texans who have earned college credit do not have a degree. The Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Program was designed to help those individuals complete their degrees while also helping associate degree holders and those with considerable work experience earn a bachelor's degree. The degree is also designed to provide an option for first-time students who prefer a self-paced format.

Students in the program commented:

"It has been my miracle I feel like because it fits into what my life is now, which is a full-time employee, a wife, a mother, and now a student. It's taking a much shorter time."

"The 750 dollars was perfect. I said, 'Wow! Nobody's doing that.'"

"It's stuff I've been doing for a very long time."

Background

In 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry challenged all Texas institutions of higher education to develop a $10,000 bachelor's degree, inclusive of all materials. The THECB, accepting this challenge, began working with A&M–Commerce and STC to build a new program. A&M–Commerce, a four-year institution, was an early adopter of online education and expressed early interest in developing a competency-based program. STC, a two-year institution, is one of three Texas public community colleges authorized by the Texas Legislature to offer bachelor's degrees in applied technology.

The first task of the TAB leadership team (which included staff from THECB, A&M–Commerce, and STC) was to identify the kind of degree to design and offer, taking into consideration both student demand and local employers' needs. The leadership team examined labor markets and anticipated job growth in the STC and A&M–Commerce regions using data from the Texas Workforce Commission and Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Several initiatives in Texas, in addition to the governor's $10,000 degree challenge, helped shape the TAB Program. One major influence was the Texas Tuning Project (2009–2013). A faculty-led pilot funded by the Lumina Foundation, this project was designed to define what students must know, understand, and be able to demonstrate after completing a degree in a specific field. The project helped the TAB leadership team understand building a degree from the ground up. During the same timeframe, the state-wide general education core curriculum was being revised, resulting in the Texas Core Curriculum (TCC). The TCC focuses on increasing student learning and improving student success and is based on the Essential Learning Outcomes of the Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) initiative of the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U). Thus, by the time faculty groups convened in 2011 to develop the TAB's lower-division competencies, participants could draw from the lessons and experiences of the Texas Tuning Project and the work on the TCC.

After identifying the competencies, the team developed a matrix using Bloom's Taxonomy Action Verbs1 to define learning outcomes, and then developed the corresponding assessment processes, assessment instruments, and course materials. LEAP's Essential Learning Outcomes were integrated into all three TAB degree components: general education core curriculum, lower-division electives, and upper-division applied coursework.

A competency framework resulted that includes two levels of competencies for the TAB degree: for the lower level, 72 general education core competencies and 19 lower-division competencies for a total of 91 competencies students must demonstrate; for the upper level, eight large overall competency categories that provide the overarching framework.

Degree Program Structure

The competencies required for the BAS/BAAS in organizational leadership map to a total of 120 credits, distributed as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Distribution of credits and competencies in the BAS and BAAS

 

Competency Areas

Format

Equivalency Number of Credit Hours

General Education Core Curriculum

Global understanding, problem-solving, effective communication, analysis, ethics, and literacy

Self-paced, online competency-based modules

42

Lower-Division Electives

Additional career-focused competencies, including foreign language

Self-paced, online competency-based modules

48

Upper-Division Applied Coursework

Interpersonal skills, organizational behavior, problem-solving/decision-making, change management, resource management, strategy/operations management, information literacy, statistics/ applied research

Hybrid; traditional and online

New pilot: self-paced, competency-based modules

30

Since many students begin the program with an associate degree or prior learning from the workplace or military, they may satisfy many degree requirements through transfer credit or through any method of prior learning assessment (PLA) available, including College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams and portfolio assessments. Both A&M–Commerce and STC also have a long history of accepting the American Council on Education's (ACE) credit recommendations for military training and occupations and for corporate training. The TAB Program accepts transfer credits from technical associate degrees that typically would not be accepted by academic degree programs. A maximum of 75 percent of the degree requirements can be met through a combination of transfer and PLA credits. Trained TAB academic coaches and program staff help students identify likely areas for PLA credit.

Curriculum

The BAS/BAAS in organizational leadership was originally designed as a program in which students complete three-quarters of the degree through competency-based modules and the remaining quarter through accelerated upper-division coursework using a more traditional format. Faculty teams developed the competencies for both the lower and upper divisions.

Although faculty members identified the lower-division competencies and learning objectives, they received help with the instructional design, development of the online competency modules, and appropriate online direct assessments from Pearson Education. The TAB leadership team decided to use Pearson's services because of the organization's work with Northern Arizona University's (NAU) Personalized Learning program. Faculty worked closely with Pearson throughout the design and development process to ensure the academic integrity of the program and to align competencies with the state's core curriculum and lower-division outcomes. The upper-division, problem-based curriculum, also developed by faculty, is driven by eight competency categories. The curriculum is designed to be delivered in six seven-week terms as follows:

Term 1: Issues in organizational leadership
Terms 2 & 3: Data-driven decision making
Terms 2 & 3: Behavior, ethics, and leadership
Terms 4 & 5: Leadership and leadership theory
Term 4: Leading organizational change/group and work dynamics
Terms 5 & 6: Capstone project

STC currently offers a hybrid of online and face-to-face curriculum delivery. In STC's hybrid model, students complete some work online, then meet with other students once a week to practice the content together. At A&M–Commerce, the upper-division work is completed in a virtual environment because the BAAS in organizational leadership is offered exclusively online.

Assessment Approach

All competency modules include embedded course assessments. Assessments for both the general education core curriculum and the lower-division electives follow the same process. Each module contains a pre-assessment a student takes as a diagnostic at the beginning of the module and a post-assessment taken at the end of the module. If a student score meets the determined cut-point on the pre-assessment, the student may go straight to the post-assessment. The post-assessments are longer and more difficult and are designed to show a deeper level of understanding of the competencies. Students have three chances to pass the post-assessment and must score 80 percent or higher to move to the next module.

Student mastery of the upper-division competencies is evaluated through a capstone e-portfolio. Students use the e-portfolio to apply their knowledge and skills to a real-world scenario, as a way to demonstrate job skills to potential employers.

The program designers are considering future use of the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP), or similar comprehensive assessment tools, as an additional assessment instrument. The program designers expect student results from this assessment will enable A&M–Commerce and STC to benchmark their students against those at other institutions nationally.

Faculty and Student Support Staff

Faculty have multiple roles in administering the TAB program. Full-time program staff serve as academic coaches and work with individual students throughout a student's program to provide feedback and support. These coaches work with the same students from enrollment through graduation, checking in with students at least once per week. The program uses learning and predictive analytics developed by Civitas Learning to help students persist and graduate on time. The academic coaches can see at a glance how their students are doing and give more attention to students who fall into at-risk categories.

Faculty members also serve as content instructors, providing real-time feedback and support, as well as administering assessments (pre and post), facilitating the student's learning by answering questions, providing one-on-one tutoring, and monitoring progress. These full-time instructional staff members are assigned to specific content domains or courses. Additionally, for the upper-division part of the degree, full-time faculty work in a more traditional faculty role, delivering both face-to-face and online courses.

Cost and Pricing/Sustainability

The first-year start-up costs to develop the TAB Program were covered by a two-year, $1 million grant from the EDUCAUSE Next Generation Learning Challenge. The grant supported a portion of the curriculum and competency mapping completed by Pearson, along with the development of a suite of marketing resources (including small initial social media buys) and the development of gap-ware to automate the student enrollment process. Both participating institutions also contributed considerable time, however, as well as human and financial resources. The estimated outlays and in-kind staff time was $250,000 from A&M–Commerce and $160,000 from STC. In addition, both institutions committed to taking on the cost of the predictive analytics from Civitas Learning.

For the lower-division curriculum the student's price for the program is $750 for each seven-week period of enrollment, inclusive of electronic resources. Students may complete as many competency modules or courses in each seven-week term as they can. Six seven-week terms are offered during each 12-month academic cycle. Because students can complete core and lower-division competencies online and through self-paced modules, those with work-based and other experiential learning can advance quickly.

The THECB estimates that the program's cost per credit for the applied baccalaureate in organizational leadership is about half the cost of a traditional degree, saving the student $113.73 per credit. Using this estimate, the student potentially saves between $13,088 and $23,088 in tuition and at least two semesters of time.

Accreditation

Obtaining the necessary accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) for the applied baccalaureate in organizational leadership was a lengthy process. SACSCOC originally approved the program in January 2013, but later approached the team requesting a substantive change proposal from both institutions. After several conversations with SACSCOC, including the submission of a substantive change proposal, SACSCOC determined that the program did not contain direct assessment and was similar in scope to currently offered programs at both institutions. SACSCOC therefore accepted notification of the program and added it to the scope of accreditation at each institution in December 2013.

Financial Aid

Because of the way in which the program maps the competencies back to the credit hour, and because two seven-week terms in the TAB Program are equivalent to one standard term, students pursuing the applied baccalaureate in organizational leadership can receive federal financial aid. The biggest challenge in meeting financial-aid regulatory requirements was the self-paced feature of the program. To meet satisfactory academic progress (SAP) requirements, TAB students must complete the equivalent of four courses across two seven-week terms (comparable to students in traditional programs completing 12 semester credit hours each traditional semester). Currently, as program enrollments increase, A&M–Commerce is looking into new financial-aid software systems to support this process.

Issues and Challenges

A significant challenge in developing the TAB Program was the faculty's initial lack of knowledge about competency-based education and, for some, initial resistance to the concept. The team devoted time and energy at the front end to engaging and educating faculty from both institutions. According to Ali Esmaeili, dean for Bachelor Programs and University Relations at STC, after two to three months of meetings the faculty began to talk with greater ease about competencies. Mary Hendrix, A&M–Commerce's Vice President for Student Access and Success, notes that while this was the biggest challenge, the solution also yielded the largest reward in that the faculty became completely invested and developed a curriculum they could call their own.

Although the new program required changes to policies, financial aid processes, student information systems, and registration at each institution, the biggest challenge the team encountered may have been IT integration. During the first several terms, neither institution's learning management system had the capability to enroll students in the competency-based modules or link the program competencies to the course-based format tracked in the student information systems. During the start-up phase, when initial enrollments were low, manual enrollment and tracking were manageable. Increasing enrollment, however, requires a better solution. Project partners are currently working to bridge the gap between the student information management systems and learning management systems. If there is a message to deliver to potential competency-based degree program designers from the TAB leadership team, it is to think about technology challenges sooner rather than later.

Next Steps

With the continued rollout of the first TAB degree program, A&M–Commerce and STC plan to launch other competency-based degrees at their institutions within the next few years. Additionally, THECB, A&M–Commerce, and STC developed the degree program for replication in other institutions and for other degree programs. These partners will share all competency maps, learning outcomes, and objectives — including the program model itself — with any other institutions.

Employers have been a strong presence during the program's development, and the team plans to continue the relationship with them by including them on a program advisory committee. The advisory committee will keep the curriculum current, review assessment results, and ensure that program design continues to align with employer needs.

Now that A&M–Commerce has decided to offer the upper-division applied coursework as competency modules, the TAB leadership team and faculty groups will work together to adapt the curriculum, competency assessments, and artifacts that students will use in their e-portfolios, given the new version.

Finally, as the NGLC grant cycle comes to a close, the role of THECB will phase out. The two institutions will work together directly, without THECB serving as facilitator or coordinator. Blackboard Learning Solutions has been working with the TAB leadership team on their strategic planning efforts and is making recommendations to help the two institutions take on more responsibilities in program organization, infrastructure, and administration.

TAB Contact Person

For more information about the TAB program, contact Ginger Gossman, Senior Director, Innovation and Policy Development, Academic Planning and Policy, at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Acknowledgments

This article replicates the report by the same name published by CAEL (copyright 2015; used with permission) with funding from the Lumina Foundation. This revised work benefitted from several interviews and correspondence with Dr. Van Davis, formerly at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board; Dr. Ali Esmaeili and Rosemond Moore from South Texas College; and Dr. Mary Hendrix and Dr. Donna Smith from Texas A&M University–Commerce.

Note
  1. Benjamin S. Bloom, Max D. Engelhart, Edward J. Furst, Walker H. Hill, and David R. Krathwohl, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals, Handbook I: Cognitive Domain, Benjamin S. Bloom, ed. (NY: Longmans, Green, 1956).