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Aurora Institute

Competency Based Education at Salt Lake Community College: Why it’s Working for Us

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Eric Heiser

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Modernize HEA

Eric Heiser
Eric A. Heiser, PhD

I’m often asked while presenting at conferences or forums why Salt Lake Community College chose to embark on transitioning from a clock-hour based training system to a competency-based education modality. The answer is multi-faceted but boils down to one major point: we believe it’s the best move for our students. Removing time as the constant of learning and focusing on mastery instead of the amount of time in the classroom seems to fit well for our learners. In this article, I’ll highlight where we started, where we currently stand, and where we hope to be in the next eighteen to twenty-four months.

First, a disclaimer. We are by no means experts nor do we have all the answers. We are simply in the middle of the process and have learned some lessons along the way. If our process does anything to help folks in not making the same mistakes we did, then we have succeeded. Please don’t think of us as the end-all-be-all of CBE, we certainly are not.


The School of Applied Technology (SAT) at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) has existed, at least in its current iteration, since 2009. In 2009, the Utah Legislature decided to merge the Salt Lake County Applied Technology College with Salt Lake Community College. The thought process was that there was too much duplication in service areas and that the community college should be serving the workforce needs in its service area. After the merger of the two colleges in 2009, the school operated in a clock-hour, non-credit function and operated that way until 2014. The SAT is the short-term, workforce based training arm of SLCC. Our focus is one-year or less training in high-demand, high-paying jobs. Students graduating from the SAT have two distinct pathways. They can choose to exit immediately following graduation and pursue work or, in cases where sister-programs exist on the undergraduate side of the college, they can continue to pursue an AAS degree in their chosen field.

The Shift

In 2013, my predecessor and the former Dean of the school was tasked by the Provost to look at moving the SAT into a competency-based format. The school had operated in a quasi-CBE format since the merger but the curriculum was in dire need of updating and this seemed like the appropriate time to make the change. In addition, since the vast majority of the students came to the SAT with some form of prior experience (the average age in the SAT is +/-35), it seemed logical that we develop a model that would allow them to move forward at a quicker pace than those students who may just be coming from the K-12 system. The change was embraced by almost the entire faculty within the school. In 2014, SLCC was awarded a $2.3M TAACCCT grant to transition twenty programs in the SAT onto a full CBE model. SLCC was also picked as one of the first community colleges to join the newly formed Competency Based Education Network or C-BEN in early 2014. This network was made up of other institutions that had begun the transformation of changing traditional programs into CBE programs. C-BEN is funded by the Lumina Foundation with assistance from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With these new resources at our disposal and support from the President, Provost, and board of trustees, we proceeded to begin the shift to a CBE environment.

Changing from Clock-Hour to CBE

One of the hardest parts of moving to a true CBE format was for our faculty to change their way of thinking about how we deliver our courses. The old model was designed around the financial aid rules regarding clock-hours. Simply put, if we said a program was 700 hours, the student had to literally be in the seat for 700 hours. If the student finished early, they were penalized by having to pay back money they received from financial aid. This model, as you can imagine, was not a good fit for adults who were looking to get in, get out, and get a better job.

The hardest part for our faculty was that the clock hour system was what all of our courses and programs were based on. We were now removing time as a constant and making it a variable. This was a brand-new way of thinking. We still struggle with some of our old systems to this day; namely, allowing students to move forward once they have proven mastery of competency rather than sitting for a set number of hours. In addition, this has challenged our internal SIS and LMS systems to the point of us running many of our operations on a manual basis.

New Design

In addition to changing from a clock-hour model to a CBE model, we had to ensure that our competencies were designed appropriately. This could not have been done without the help of our e-learning department and namely our instructional design team. Essentially, we have (and continue) to pair a faculty member with an instructional designer to ensure that our course design is appropriate based on the desired outcomes for the course/program. We view the instructional designer as the expert in design, namely CBE design, and the faculty member as the subject-matter expert or SME. Our team uses a backwards design process to ensure the assessments are matching correctly with our desired and stated learning outcomes and competencies. Needless to say, without instructional design experts in the picture, it would be very hard to for us to justify that what we are doing fits with the design of a CBE modality.

How it Works

This is the fun part! As I’m often asked at conferences and presentations, how do you make it work? My often coy answer is, very carefully! Joking aside, this transition has taught us many things, not the least of which is that many different internal stakeholders have to be brought on board and buy in to the changes in order for this system to work. Again, I bring your attention to the disclaimer at the top of the page. We are by no means experts here and what has worked for us may not work for your institution. This is simply the process we have followed that has gone through multiple iterations in an effort to get it to work. If we’ve learned anything from our time as a C-BEN institution, it’s that there are many different flavors of CBE, and oftentimes you have to make your own version of lots of flavors to get it to work for your institution.

Now, to the process. The first thing I should draw your attention to is that our school (not the college) runs on an open-enrollment system. Essentially, we have new students starting nearly every Monday throughout the year. This is vastly different from the traditional academic schedule and oftentimes this is where people check out when I’m speaking about our system. However, I don’t think this means that what we’ve done won’t have some applicability for your school. Just because we accept new students nearly every week doesn’t mean the mode of delivery is drastically different—it’s not. Essentially, our version of CBE is that the faculty are facilitators and coaches more than lecture-driven or “sage on the stage.” This system works regardless of when students enroll. Our students have access to the classroom, in most cases, from 8am-8pm Monday-Thursday. They can show up at any time, receive one-on-one or small group attention with a faculty member, and move through the material as quickly as they like. We mandate what we call “Weekly Meaningful Contact” in our CBE program. This mandate forces students to have weekly contact, usually in-person, with their faculty members to ensure that their questions are being answered and that they are comfortable with the curriculum. Further, this time is often used for students to demonstrate practical assessments or proctored written assessments. We do make some of our assignments and curriculum available online; however, we are careful to make the distinction that this is not online learning. Since students are required to show up at least once per week (most come much more often than that), we refer to our CBE modality as a hybrid model.

Students are required to maintain a minimum pace throughout the duration of their program. This is to ensure that they finish in at least the average amount of time and aren’t taking an inordinate amount of time to finish. We’ve learned that the longer a students stays past the average completion date, their odds of completion decrease drastically. If they deviate from the average pace, our faculty and advisors begin the intervention process. Usually this happens in one of two ways. Either the faculty member reaches out directly to the student or our advisors attempt to reach out. Either way, we are checking in with the student sooner rather than later. We have found that the sooner the intervention happens, the more likely we are to re-engage the student. Often, more than two weeks leads to the student dropping off the map. The last thing we want is students hanging out in a one-year (or less) program for multiple years. We focus very heavily on student tracking. This is one area where the Learning Management Systems (LMS) have yet to adapt to this style of learning. Some are close, and we are hopeful that they will be able to develop a system to meet our needs, but until that time we are forced to run a very manual tracking system. Our faculty engage with students often, and this is crucial to the success of our students.

The Path to Completion

We are just over a year into our pilot period and are just starting to see our first completers. The early numbers are promising and are showing that students are finishing either at pace or quicker than the average. More importantly, the faculty feels that students are showing more engagement within the classroom in the new model. Giving students the ability to move through at a pace that fits their lifestyle and gives recognition for prior learning is what this move was all about. As more and more programs transition to the CBE model we will begin to measure, with statistical significance, how students are performing compared to the old model. It’s at this point that the “proof will be in the pudding.” While our early completions show promise, we are still at least a year away.

Where We Go from Here

Our TAACCCT Grant will run through 2018. We have transitioned ten of our programs into the CBE format and have ten more to go. In the next eighteen to twenty-four months, all of those programs will transfer in and begin operating in a true CBE format. We’re also learning, along the way, what has worked and what hasn’t as it relates to programs moving from clock-hour to CBE.

The good news for your institution? Since this has transition has been funded by the TAACCCT grant, all of our material will be available, free of charge, in an OER environment once the project is complete. Hopefully, by the time we finish, we will have a better process for folks to follow than the current manual process we are using today. However, this doesn’t mean we aren’t willing to help you and your institution, if only to answer questions, in the meantime. We have and continue to engage community colleges that are interested in potentially heading down the CBE road and are happy to help in any way we can. After all, the main goal is to improve student learning…and that’s something we can all get on board with!

See also:

Eric A. Heiser is the Interim Dean at the School of Applied Technology and Professional Development, Salt Lake Community College. Eric has worked in higher education for the past ten years, and has spent the past five of those working in the area of Competency Based Education and Curriculum Development. He has overseen and is currently leading the School of Applied Technology to a transition from a clock hour format into Competency Based Education modality.

Eric Holds a Ph.D. in Higher Education Leadership from Colorado State University. Twitter: @EricHeiser