College for America Blog

Kate Kazin on writing, rigor, and the CFA associate’s degree


Posted In: Academics

Oct • 21 • 2013

In a welcomed New York Times round-up of emerging competency-based college degree programs, author Anya Kamenetz raised a glancing critique near the end:

“Newer programs rely entirely on assessments created in-house, and the quality will surely vary widely. For example, Mr. Sherman completed his College for America degree without writing anything longer than a 1,500-word research paper . . .”

With all respect to Ms Kamenetz, we think she raised an important question – actually, a few questions – without truly answering them:

(1) How exactly does College for America assess competency in writing?

(2) Is this CfA assessment more or less rigorous than a typical ‘traditional’ associate’s degree?

(3) Is the CfA assessment sufficiently rigorous for an employer’s expectations of an associate’s degree holder?

Here is our take on answering these three questions – we welcome your feedback and comments, below.


(1) How does College for America assess competency in writing?

Depending on the specific projects they choose, CfA students earning an associate’s degree in General Studies must demonstrate mastery of writing through a minimum of ten extended essays (ranging from 500 – 1,500 words; using APA or MLA style formatting, 1,500 words is a 6 page paper) and 15 shorter writing pieces.  In addition, they create a minimum of 7 videos, multiple PowerPoint presentations, posters, lab reports, agendas, audio recordings, and spreadsheets, not to mention game boards and menus.

For all of this work, we require actual, demonstrated competency.  No one can skate by with a “C” on their way to a degree.  Reviewers evaluate projects using rigorous and specific rubrics that leave room for only two results: ‘mastery’ or ‘not yet’ – with no room to pass a student with a lower grade to reward effort, how long they’ve been at it, sympathy, affection, or an interest in moving them along.  And students receive not just traditional transcripts, but also electronic portfolios with demonstrated writing samples and other work so future employers or higher education institutions have full transparency into their skills – thus, more accountability.

We think it’s a more rigorous assessment than a comparable degree in which a student might write more words, but with less accountability. But, that raises the second question: in other associate’s degree programs, DO students write more?

(2) Is the CfA assessment more or less rigorous than a typical ‘traditional’ associate’s degree?

While Kamenetz writes “the newer programs rely entirely on assessments created in-house, and the quality will surely vary widely,” the truth is that quality variation is true not just across new programs, but rather across all programs. Specific degree standards are less apparent than one might expect.  There is no accepted minimum measure of “number of pages” or “number of papers” for an associate’s degree nationwide.  According to the 2013 benchmark Community College Survey of Student Engagement, the students reported writing a mean of roughly 4.6 papers or reports of any length per year.  That puts CfA’s degree requirement of 25 writing assignments notably more rigorous than average.  The CCSSE does not measure paper length.

In terms of benchmarking our degree program to traditionally administered degrees, College for America has a tremendous benefit in being developed by a traditional brick and mortar campus with an 80 year history of educating students – Southern New Hampshire University.  Today, SNHU offers an associate of arts (AA) degree now in three formats: on campus, online, and through College for America’s unique competency-based degree.  The methods are very different and fit the needs of different students, but the writing requirements hold fairly constant across all three, with CfA students completing roughly the same minimum writing requirements as traditional students.

The closest approximation to a true industry-wide standard is the act of accreditation by a regional accrediting association – and CfA is both accredited through the nation’s oldest such accreditor, NEASC, and also was the first competency-based degree program in the nation approved for federal student aid by the US Department of Education.  In sum, we are confident that our students at CfA learn and demonstrate mastery of writing that exceeds a typical traditional associate’s degree.

Finally, let’s add one layer beyond academics:

(3) Is the CfA assessment sufficiently rigorous for an employer’s expectations of an associate’s degree holder?

We launched College for America to be much more than a degree program – we believe it is a critical and innovative ingredient in solving the massive skills gap facing American employers.  So when we look at holding ourselves accountable, it’s not enough to achieve more rigor than an existing traditional school – we also need to ensure we are meeting employers needs and expectations as well.

The real test here is: can an employer be confident that Zach Sherman (our first graduate) or others like him can write at the level needed on a job that requires an associate’s degree? According to our Chief Workforce Strategist, Julian Alssid, who has been studying and working on the workforce skills gap issues for stakeholders like the Ford Foundation, US Department of Labor, and more than 20 U.S. States over the past two decades, the answer is resoundingly yes.  Here’s why:

At the heart of the skills gap is a disconnect between educators and employers. Consider the recent McKinsey Education to Employment study of 8,000 employers and education providers, which found that 72% of educators believe their graduates are ready for work, while only 42% of employers believed the same.

At CfA we are taking this head-on, continually analyzing our curriculum against skills or work tasks that can be found across multiple occupations to ensure relevancy in the workplace. For example, we recently reviewed and compared our curriculum to the skills required for 17 specific in-demand associate’s degree-level job titles. In this process, we identified numerous writing skills that are common to both our curriculum and these jobs (for example: developing sales or informational presentations or speeches; preparing technical or financial reports; etc.). Integral to our curriculum development process is ongoing discussion with employers to ensure our students are prepared both academically and for changing industry skill requirements.

A 2013 survey of employers for the Association of American Colleges and Universities also provides insight that supports the CfA approach, including our (1) above-average writing requirements, (2) project-based learning and skills development, and (3) portfolio-based transcripts:

“More than three in four employers say they want colleges to place more emphasis on helping students develop five key learning outcomes, including: critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings . . .
Across many areas tested, employers strongly endorse educational practices that involve students in active, effortful work . . .they also strongly endorse practices that require students to demonstrate both acquisition of knowledge and its application . . .
In addition to a resume or college transcript, more than four in five employers say an electronic portfolio would be useful to them in ensuring that job applicants have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in their company or organization.”

In conclusion (and perhaps not surprisingly!) we are confident that the CfA degree’s requirements regarding mastery of written communication compare favorably with both a traditional associate’s degree in General Studies, and with employer’s expectations of the same.

Finally, we’ve devoted this blog post to discussing just one of the three pillars of our program – accountability. Our goal here is to build a degree in which the student and school are both more accountable for the resulting student competencies than the traditional higher ed model. But it’s worth remembering that there are also two other pillars. We are making a program that is more accessible for working, adult learners than the traditional school (through project-based, self-paced work where time is flexible but mastery is mandatory). And, we have built a radically affordable degree program. At $2,500/year, the CfA degree is literally one tenth the cost of some other associate’s degree programs. The result is bringing Zach Sherman – and thousands more like him – the benefit of a high-quality college degree that otherwise would have passed them by.

Cathrael (Kate) Kazin, Chief Academic Officer at College for America, worked for the past ten years as Executive Director for Higher Education at ETS, where she was responsible for strategic outreach to the higher education community, collaborations with presidents, provosts and other higher education leaders, and high-profile strategic initiatives to develop new services. Her previous roles include Director of English Language Testing at the National Institute of Testing and Evaluation in Israel and Special Assistant to U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. Kate has also been a practicing attorney and assistant professor of English at the University of Iowa. She has an A.B. with Highest Honors in English from Smith College, a Ph.D. in English from Cornell University, and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.