A Quick Fix to Align Your Tuition Assistance Policy with CBE


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Posted In: Workforce Insight

Nov • 9 • 2018

A Quick Fix to Align Your Tuition Assitance Policy with CBE

Even if your company is familiar with the advantages of competency-based degree programs and wants to begin offering them to its employees, it may run into a couple of small administrative wrinkles in its tuition assistance policy and procedures. Fortunately, those are easily ironed out with modest updates.

The wrinkles arise from the way competency-based education (CBE) is different when it comes to measuring progress. How do you know how much work a student is putting in and what they have achieved?

Traditionally, effort is measured by “seat time” that adds up to credit hours, which accumulate into a degree. And achievement is traditionally measured by course grades.

As a result, your company’s tuition assistance policy may use the language of credit hours and grade point averages to describe who is eligible for tuition reimbursement. For example, your tuition assistance program (TAP) may have a policy that participating employees must maintain a 2.0 GPA (or a C average) and be enrolled for at least 6 credit hours per term (or on a half-time basis).

However, when you introduce a competency-based degree into your learning and development program, it won’t align perfectly with that policy. That’s because CBE doesn’t measure seat time or grades.

Instead, progress is measured by how many competencies a student demonstrates. A project is evaluated as either “yes” the competency is demonstrated, or “not yet” and the student keeps working to develop that competency.

This removes the seat time and credit hours elements entirely. Students are evaluated by their actual skills learned rather than by how much time they are putting in.

For example, in the competency-based College for America degree program at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) students must achieve 120 competencies for bachelor’s degrees or 60 for associate degrees. As a result, many people are able progress very quickly and earn “four-year” degrees in much less time than that.

As SNHU President Paul LeBlanc said in an interview with the National Association of Independent Schools, “The credit hour is really good at telling the world how long you’ve sat, but it’s not actually very good at telling the world what you’ve learned. Competency-based flips that and says, ‘We’re going to be crystal clear about what you’ve learned and how we know, but we’re not going to be mindful at all about time.’”

But what happens when your employees start working on competency-based degrees while your tuition assistance policy requires them to report their credit hours and GPA?

Updating your tuition assistance policy to incorporate CBE

This is a pretty easy fix once you understand the differences described above. Donna Nutter, billing and contracting manager at SNHU, said the Workforce Partnerships office at SNHU has worked with many employers on this administrative issue.

“Our goal isn’t to have you upend your system,” she said. “It should be easy just to adapt your existing policy.”

Usually, a TAP policy only needs a simple addition that indicates how many competencies are required to demonstrate good progress in cases where employees are in a CBE program. The most common way employers adapt their tuition assistance policies is to require 6 competencies per 16-week term to be eligible for tuition reimbursement.

This is comparable to steady progress on a half-time schedule. One competency is roughly equivalent to 1 credit hour, so 6 competencies would be similar to finishing 2 courses per 16-week term.

“That’s a good policy for working adults,” Nutter said. “We expect them to participate at a decent clip, and so do their employers who are supporting their tuition expenses. That policy tracks well to ‘satisfactory progress,’ which is the intent of most policies.”

Related reading: 5 Critical Elements of Competency-Based Education Programs

Updating your TAP procedures to incorporate CBE

The second wrinkle that may come up when you introduce a CBE option under your TAP policy is in the administrative procedures.

For example, when employees begin to apply for tuition reimbursement, your application forms may ask them to describe their schedule of courses or how many credits they earned.

CBE often doesn’t have courses in the traditional sense. In the CBE format College for America uses, for example, students work on online projects to demonstrate competencies. It’s an “all-you-can-learn” model where students work at any pace they need to, and they are billed the same amount each term rather than being billed by the credit hour.

So when an employee encounters a form to apply for reimbursement through your tuition assistance program, it won’t be obvious how to answer questions about which courses they will take or about how many credits they earned.

Again, Nutter doesn’t recommend replacing these forms. Instead, she said, SNHU’s strategic partnership managers can advise your employees on the best way to complete them for a CBE program so their supervisors will understand that they are making satisfactory progress.

“It’s an adjustment, but enrolling in a competency-based degree program shouldn’t slow the company or employees down any,” Nutter said. “Our mission at SNHU is expanding access to learning opportunities, so making these administrative issues as simple as possible is really important. We’re committed from the outset to working with our partners to give their employees a great learning.”

Ready to learn more? Get in touch with our Workforce Partnerships team.