Competency-based education takes off at nursing colleges

This issue of The Job looks at nursing colleges’ transition to competency-based education, which experts say creates clarity for students and could help curb staffing shortages. Also, new research on work-based learning.

This issue of The Job looks at nursing colleges’ transition to competency-based education, which experts say creates clarity for students and could help curb staffing shortages. Also, new research finds that students who participate in work-based learning have better odds of landing a job after college.

More Stability for Nurses

Nursing is one of the nation’s highest-demand fields, with severe staffing shortages that are driving a public health crisis

Meanwhile, the nation’s nursing colleges are moving to competency-based education, in part to ease the profession’s workforce woes. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing began leading this transformation two years ago. The association’s “essentials” program defines core competency expectations for graduates of four-year and graduate nursing programs at its 865 member institutions.

The academic preparation of nurses too often is inconsistent, says Susan Corbridge, AACN’s chief essentials program officer. That leads to bumpy transitions to practice for many new nurses, she says, which likely contributes to their stress and turnover, increasing the burden on the healthcare system.

“A competency-based approach provides clarity and consistency around what nurse graduates are prepared to do,” Corbridge says. “The move to competency-based education will facilitate a more stable community of nurses, who will be more likely to adapt, thrive, and lead in today’s complex health system.”

Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University has been working to transform its nursing degree programs to a competency-based model. Shelley A. Johnson, FAMU’s dean of nursing, acknowledges that she and others at the HBCU initially were worried about the pressure of making such a big change. But she quickly saw its benefits.

“It levels the playing field a bit and makes sure we give each student what they need,” Johnson says. “It holds us accountable.”

The university is trying to improve the first-time licensure exam pass rate of its nursing graduates, which lags the national average and landed the nursing school on probation with the Florida Board of Nursing. Johnson says the curriculum standardization of CBE helps to close learning gaps for students.

“It guarantees that they will walk away with the skills they need,” she says.

FAMU has enlisted WGU Labs for help with the transition. A project of Western Governors University—a competency-based, online and nonprofit university with the nation’s largest enrollment—WGU Labs offers consulting, workshops for faculty and leaders, and custom learning development services to institutions that are trying CBE.

“We are already seeing colleges with nursing programs broaden their adoption of CBE in other programs,” says Jess Stokes, a director at WGU Labs. One college WGU Labs is working with is moving to competency-based education across nursing as well in credential programs for electricians, HVAC workers, and computer technicians.

CBE programs are well suited for the stacking of credentials, says Stokes. In nursing, for example, the competencies articulated by accreditors can provide a core on which specializations can be stacked. 

Beyond nursing, she says competency-based education could help employees in healthcare move from entry-level jobs at labs, clinics, and hospitals to middle- and high-skill careers.

The Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) also helps colleges make the leap. In some cases the group works at the state level, as part of projects to bring institutions together to collectively define competency standards. In Illinois, for example, 76 institutions have jointly developed CBE paths for early childhood education programs.

The nudge by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, which has an autonomous accrediting arm, has been huge in helping nursing education make the shift , says Charla Long, C-BEN’s president.

“I don’t think it’s just going to be nursing where we see this,” Long says, noting that accreditors in other sectors already are moving this way. “It will be the thing that helps to normalize competency-based education.”

Given the “enormity and breadth” of the transition, AACN says the process for its member colleges may take three years or longer to complete. But the end result of moving away from traditional classroom learning, Corbridge says, will be a “more learner-centric approach to preparing nurses” that also allows for different types of experiential learning opportunities.

Johnson is optimistic that FAMU’s move to CBE will help the nursing program’s broader effort to shrink the education-to-employment gap for students. “We are working within our region to figure out what matters for employers,” she says.

Accreditors have opportunities to prod CBE’s expansion beyond nursing and allied health, says Jane Oates, president of WorkingNation and a former Labor Department official. She points to engineering, data analytics, and IT as possibilities, as well as competencies across the liberal arts in digital fluency and written and oral communication.

The Kicker: “Competency-based education could be the way that tuition-dependent, low-endowment colleges show their value to prospective students,” Oates says.

Work-Based Learning

College graduates who participate in work-based learning are more likely to land a job than are their peers who don’t have those experiences. And four-year graduates with work-based learning experiences also earn more in their first three years out of college—although the same is not true for two-year graduates.

Those are the top findings of a new working paper from the Community College Research Center.

  • The report mined the transcript and state workforce data of first-time students who entered an unnamed large, diverse college system from 2004–05 to 2013–14. It focused on those who ultimately graduated.

“The results suggest that work-based course takers have better chances of being employed after college graduation than nontakers,” says Rachel Yang Zhou, the report’s author and a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business who formerly worked as a senior research assistant at CCRC. 

“This may serve as an equity tool in both higher education and the postcollege labor market,” she says.

Work-based learning—which brings internships, real-world business projects, and other work experiences into the classroom—is an increasingly popular approach to bridging the gap between education and work. But we still don’t know a lot about what’s effective or who most benefits from work-based learning.

  • In the CCRC study, 31% of two-year completers and 29% of four-year grads took a work-based learning course. Almost all the courses at both types of institution were credit-bearing.

Women participated in work-based learning at higher rates than men. Latino and Black students also were more likely than their white and Asian American peers to have taken such courses. There also was wide variation in work-based learning by field, with the arts, humanities, and social sciences generally seeing the highest levels and the STEM fields the lowest.

The impact? Among four-year graduates, the study found positive results on both employment and earnings for work-based learners, but the story for two-year graduates is more mixed.

  • For two-year completers, the probability of being employed in the first year after graduation is 4.3 percentage points higher for students who took work-based courses than for those who did not.
  • In subsequent years, work-based learners are still more likely to be employed, but the effect is no longer statistically significant.

Among four-year completers, in contrast, the positive impact on employment rates—4.4 percentage points in the first year—is similar but lasts through the third year after graduation. The real differences show up in earnings.

  • Four-year graduates who did work-based learning earned more than their peers who did not through the first three years after completing college.
  • Among two-year graduates, however, there was no statistically significant difference between the first-year earnings of students who did work-based learning and those who did not, and in some later years work-based learners actually earned less.

What’s going on? First, a note of caution: The study employed a matching technique that controlled for program of study and many other factors. But even so, its findings show correlations, not that work-based learning necessarily caused the observed differences in employment and earnings.

Zhou says this is especially a concern when interpreting the data on two-year graduates—in part because such a high percentage work while enrolled in college. Here are three reasons why earnings might be lower for work-based learners at community colleges:

  • Other work options: More than 40% of community college students who would go on to complete a degree were already working in their first semester in college, and the data couldn’t fully account for how that might affect whether students chose to participate in work-based courses. And even though outside jobs aren’t integrated into coursework, they may still develop career skills that boost students’ earnings.
  • Programs aren’t all the same: Zhou’s analysis matched students based on standardized program areas (using Classification of Instructional Programs [CIP] codes)—but within those buckets, there can still be a lot of variation in the specific focus, design, and expected labor market outcomes of programs.
  • Postgrad plans: Many community college graduates transfer to four-year institutions, enter apprenticeships, or go into unionized sectors, where lower wages may be offset by higher nonwage benefits. All those could suppress earnings. 

(A version of this article appeared elsewhere on Work Shift.) Elyse Ashburn

Open Tabs

Skills-Based Hiring

Alaska is dropping four-year college degree requirements for most state government jobs. An executive order issued last week by Mike Dunleavy, the state’s Republican governor, calls for the replacement of degree requirements—where one is not legally required—with comparable work experience, skills, or competency-based training. Dunleavy’s order follows similar moves by governors of Maryland, Colorado, Utah, and Pennsylvania.

Federal Hiring

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bipartisan bill to encourage skills-based hiring for federal jobs. The Biden administration has followed the Trump administration in seeking to encourage the federal hiring of skilled workers without four-year degrees. The new House bill would seek to build on that effort by requiring that agencies use position-specific technical assessments and interviews by subject-matter experts.

College Contractors

In addition to its potential impact on online program management companies, new federal guidance on contractors could extend the Education Department’s definition of “third-party servicers” to vendors that provide colleges with tutoring services, retention tracking, student analytics, learning management systems, instructional design, and more, according to an analysis by Megan Raymond, a senior director for WCET.

Enrollment Crisis

Only 42% of community college students who left college during the pandemic said it is likely they will enroll again in the future, according to a nationally representative survey commissioned by New America. And 24% who plan to enroll again say they won’t until after this year. Work demands and costs were the top reasons students who stopped out or who aspired to attend community college decided not to enroll.

Open Badges

Providers of digital badges reported issuing nearly 75M open badges worldwide as of 2022, an increase of 73% over two years, according to a report from 1EdTech and Credential Engine. More than 500K types of open badges are available, found the analysis, which also counted 26K badge issuers globally. Respondents reported growing awareness and acceptance of badges, but some called for structured data practices.

Online Training

Cengage Work is offering employers a new train-to-hire online skills program. Ready to Hire has an initial focus on healthcare and IT/cybersecurity. It will identify and train new workers, offer certification and professional skills to current employees, and connect companies with students. One of the program’s first partners is Northwell Health, New York’s largest healthcare provider.

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