Trending Now: Recent News in the Postsecondary World of Next Generation Learning

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Near the end of 2013, developments in higher education that caught our attention  included a nationally telecast meeting in Washington on competency-based education at community colleges and a report from Moody’s Investors Service indicating deepening tuition revenue declines for both public and private institutions. Each has implications for NGLC’s grantees, for our work, and for those interested in the best ways to meet students’ needs while improving their institutions’ fiscal health in this challenging era.

The New America Foundation hosted “A Natural Fit? Community Colleges and Competency-based Education” [] on November 18, which was also sponsored by the American Association of Community Colleges, the American Council on Education, and Western Governors University. The agenda incorporated two sets of considerations:

  • the ways in which community colleges are proceeding to design competency-based programs to meet the needs of their students and their local partners, and
  • the opportunities and challenges of today’s policy environment for postsecondary innovators.


Speakers included leaders from Ivy Tech Community College Northeast, Edmonds Community College, and Broward College, as well as Sally Johnstone of Western Governors Universit.  A concluding policy panel, “Moving from Institutions to Systems: Implications for Policy and Practice,” brought together Jay Box of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (an NGLC Breakthrough Models grantee), Belle Whelan of the southern regional accreditor SACS, and Amy Laitinen of New America. As might be expected, the panelists called attention to the need for rigor as well as speed and for incorporation of rigorous general education rather than technical training alone. On the latter point, Laitenen expressed a concern about a two-track system in which competency-based programs would be appropriate only for those headed for low-wage jobs. It’s a concern that NGLC shares and a reason behind our emphasis on demonstrated high quality in the breakthrough degree programs we support.  (Video of this panel, and some other meeting sessions are available at the website.)

We’re glad that Holly Morris, NGLC’s director of postsecondary models and adoption, was able to take part in the event. As serious consideration of competency-based programs continues and widens nationally, NGLC’sBreakthrough Models Academy is poised to help institutions develop the change agents who can engage in the development of such programs. And the second cohort of NGLC’s Breakthrough Models Incubator, for which application has just opened, will enable the institutions selected for participation to focus explicitly on development of competency-based programs.

Furthermore, the lessons that our postsecondary grantees are learning as they implement new financial models will play a key role in the competency-focused curriculum of this year’s Breakthrough Models Incubator.  In late November, Moody’s Investors Service released results of their fifth annual tuition survey. The news isn’t encouraging.  Tuition revenue is not keeping pace with inflation, and the problem is growing: 28% of public institutions (compared with 15% last year) expected declines in net tuition revenue, upon which most depend.  The report illustrates that the worrisome trends that began in the recent recession are, if anything, accelerating. Public institutions are affected “for the first time in decades,” according to the report’s author, Karen Kedem. She wrote,

“At this pace, tuition-dependent colleges and universities will be challenged to make necessary investments in personnel, programs, and facilities to remain competitive over the longer term.”

Almost two years out from NGLC’s call for proposals for new affordable degree programs, what we asked institutions to consider–taking new measures to cut costs but retain and potentially improve quality–including more personalized and customized uses of technology to assess and support students and thoughtful disaggregation of the complex tasks involved in providing instruction–are even more critical for institutions to consider in today’s environment.