Capella Looks Beyond Grades To Measure Career Competencies

While the federal government is still in the process of developing a plan to require greater accountability from for-profit colleges, Capella is giving students a new way to judge their employable skills progress.

Capella University is launching a digital “competency map” for its students, which it claims is a “first-of-its-kind” online program that lets adult students track the skills they're gaining for specific career paths—rather than just a letter grade.
The for-profit, online college primarily serves working adults who want to advance their careers. Capella says it is dedicated to building skills that its students can actually use in their current or future careers, and that traditional grades provide a limited understanding of whether a student is gaining the skills demanded by a specific profession.
“With their competency maps, Capella students have a new—and much more detailed—way to show current and future employers exactly what they have mastered in their degree programs as it relates to their professions,” Capella University President Scott Kinney said in a statement.

According to the university, as its students complete assignments, the competency maps compile the career-relevant aptitudes on a visual display, illustrating a real-time view of how students are performing and what subjects they need to focus on to be more prepared for their careers.
For-profit schools like Capella have been scrutinized in recent years for their ability, or inability, to prepare students for “gainful employment”—a comparison of the debt students incur and their incomes after program completion, and the rate at which enrollees repay their loans. 
After seeing students across the country leave for-profit schools with more debt than employable skills, the U.S. Department of Education proposed measures in 2010 for determining whether certain postsecondary educational programs led to gainful employment in recognized occupations. The plan: If schools don’t live up to the guidelines, they shouldn’t be eligible for financial assistance programs from the government, which the for-profit schools depend heavily on.
Last year, the government released gainful employment data, which highlighted three main benchmarks for schools. The benchmarks were based on the debt/earnings ratio of the students graduating—the schools’ programs had to meet at least one of the three benchmarks in at least three out of four consecutive years to remain eligible for federal student aid; click here to see how schools stacked up. Capella passed all three benchmarks for almost all of its programs, excluding family and community services, social work, and criminal justice.
The proposal was halted, however, after a federal judge struck down the standards, following a lawsuit that argued that one of the three benchmarks was set arbitrarily—and because the three metrics were linked, the government had to start over.
So the Department of Education went back to the drawing board, and late last summer, President Barack Obama announced a new plan to rate colleges on value, which is reportedly stricter than the original proposal.
That plan is in limbo as negotiations to discuss the proposal, which were originally set for October 21 through 23, were delayed due to the government shutdown.
While the new standards have not yet been released, Mike Buttry, Capella’s vice president for public affairs and communications, told Twin Cities Business that he expects them to be fairly similar to the original data.
“Capella has worked very hard to maintain strong relationships with the U.S. Department of Education, our accreditors, and other regulators,” Buttry said. “And the gainful employment data the department released last year provided further evidence of the value of a Capella degree—and the new data is expected to do the same.”
The Department of Education also recently approved Capella’s “FlexPath” programs.
According to Capella, FlexPath are competency-based bachelor’s and master’s degree programs that use a “direct-assessment” learning model over the traditional credit-hour standard. It is meant to allow students to work at their own pace, allowing them to complete subjects once they are proficient, rather than requiring weekly participation and deadlines. The college said it is the first university to offer such degree programs.
Capella also released its third quarter financial report Tuesday, and while its earnings and revenue both increased, its total enrollment for the quarter decreased about 1.4 percent to 34,503—and new enrollment was down 1.3 percent from the same period in 2012.