Redefining Who’s “College Material” with Mastery-Based Degrees


Posted In: Academics

Mar • 29 • 2017

The first time I heard a student at College for America tell me their education had been transformational on a personal level  — not just good for their careers — I was blown away. In my years of experience at other institutions, I hardly ever heard that.


What makes the College for America experience transformational? Is it the books they read or the topics they study? Is it the curriculum they are exposed to?


I think the answer lies in the foundations of the College for America program design: our assessment model requires students to understand and apply feedback and to keep trying until they have mastered a new set of skills. This process is, in many respects, just as important as the specific competency or content itself.


Reshaping Students’ Ideas About Who They Are


To achieve our goal of making degree programs better at delivering learning that is applicable to working adults, we decided against using grades. We don’t assess students on how much they know at test time. Instead, they are required to demonstrate complete mastery of a skill before they can move on. This emphasizes that they are more than the sum of their knowledge. They are limited only by their willingness to try.


Our intention when we committed to the mastery-based model was a more rational form of assessment that aligns with how adults learn and with how they are used to operating at work.


But we discovered an unanticipated benefit. This process not only better connects learners to their experiences as working adults. It also changes the learner’s sense of who they are and what they can do.


In particular, students learn they can do things that are difficult and unfamiliar. They learn how to grow and improve with feedback. And most importantly, they begin to focus on the work that needs to be done rather than being hindered by their limiting ideas about themselves.


The Power of “Not Yet”


Many people have a tendency to box themselves in with self-descriptions. We tend to say things like, “I’m not good at math. I can’t write. I’m not college material.” Sadly, the very act of saying these things limits what we allow ourselves to try. Working adults who may have tried college earlier and didn’t complete a degree program are particularly prone to this kind of thinking.


Students in a mastery-based program, however, discover there is no downside to attempting a new skill that may be difficult, because there is no way to fail the projects we use to assess mastery. The results in this kind of program are either “pass” or “not yet,” so there is no fear of “blowing my GPA” and, consequently, no reason to avoid challenging courses.


In a mastery-based model, students are supported with detailed feedback and with advisors, and they are given the opportunity to try as many times as they need to demonstrate mastery. The first time a student gets a “not yet,” they also get a counseling session that reinforces that success comes from trying rather than from being inherently good at a subject.


On the flip side of not risking the GPA, there is no skating by with a C minus either. Students really have to find it in themselves to keep trying in order to progress.


As a result, the student’s sense of self stretches. They discover that they can learn things, that they can tackle a difficult problem. They can get better at something that isn’t a natural strength.


In short, many of College for America’s students realize for the first time that they are college material.


A More Confident Mindset Leads to Amazing Things


While designing College for America’s mastery-based degree programs, we were heavily influenced by Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. This groundbreaking work articulates the difference between a fixed mindset, where people believe their talent and intelligence are fixed traits, and a growth mindset, where people believe they can develop their skills through dedication and hard work.


If you’ve read Dweck, you know that a key point of the theory is that the growth mindset doesn’t just occur naturally — students have to learn how to try. A growth mindset comes from the experience of trying and not necessarily getting it the first time, but then hearing feedback and persevering . . . and improving.


Over and over we’ve seen how this process results in greater confidence like it did for College for America student Detra Wright, a working mother and a claims resolution analyst with Anthem, Inc. After graduating, Detra was promoted to a senior position, in part because the process of mastering the competencies required to earn her degree had given her the confidence to become a team leader.


Shannon Ruane is another working mother who enrolled in College for America’s Bachelor of Arts in Healthcare Management program while working at Penn Medicine. Her new skill sets not only prepared her to take on more challenging roles within the company, but also increased her understanding of what she could accomplish. As she puts it: “College for America has given me the ability to believe in myself and know that I can do it. I can bring positive, forward change for myself.”


Why is Mastery-Based Learning Good News for Employers?


More confident working adults means better business results for their employers. Lumina Foundation has been partnering with Accenture to study the tuition assistance programs of several major employers, and is finding a significant return on investment in each case. For example, the study of Cigna’s Education Reimbursement Program demonstrated a 129 percent ROI as a result of avoided talent management costs.


Similarly, companies that may have had to hire management personnel from outside can now promote more from within. They also benefit from higher retention rates and decreased absenteeism.


We set out to help companies with their talent development strategy and to help employees earn highly relevant degrees. But along the way we saw that we were helping working adults expand their own sense of what they’re capable of.


We are seeing students who live up to the promise of the growth mindset because they are shifting from saying, “I’m not good at math” to saying, “I kept trying and I actually did this thing I thought was impossible.”


That is the kind of personal transformation we should all be working to achieve in higher education.