For-Profit Giant Starts Competency-Based ‘Open College’

October 03, 2014

One of the biggest for-profit college companies in the country is creating an "Open College" aimed at adults who may already have skills and experience that could qualify for college credits.

The new venture, from Kaplan Higher Education, will include free online services and personalized mentoring to help people identify and organize prior experience and skills that could count toward a degree or move them closer to a new career.

It will also provide fee-based services, under a subscription model, that will offer ways for students to satisfy the remaining requirements for a bachelor of science degree in professional studies from Kaplan University. Students who enroll in Open College could take courses at Kaplan University or from other sources, such as the MOOC provider edX or the Saylor Foundation, as long as the students ultimately meet the course outcomes set by Open College.

Kaplan Higher Education, part of the Graham Holdings Company, hopes to begin enrolling its first Open College@KU students on Monday.

The Kaplan offerings respond to a growing interest in competency-based education and a concern among many higher-education experts about the absence of tools to help people, especially adults, find more economical and efficient pathways to degrees and careers.

Other ventures, including the movement around "badges," are trying to develop ways to take students’ informally acquired knowledge and "certify it, organize it, and credential it," notes Mark S. Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research who studies the earnings of college graduates. The Kaplan venture is "touching a need that everybody recognizes," he says, but whether it can actually execute the idea remains to be seen.

Open College will not participate in federal student-aid programs. But company officials say it will nonetheless offer an "affordable" path to a college degree through its use of assessments that give credit for prior learning and the self-paced program.

With enrollment subscription costs of $195 a month, charges of $100 per assessment for each of the 35 course equivalents needed to earn credits toward a degree, and a $371-per-credit charge for a final six-credit capstone course, a student entering with no credits who pursued the program for 48 straight months could earn a bachelor’s degree for about $15,000. Students who earned credits based on their prior experience would end up paying less than that.

Officials expect that such students would typically enroll with about 60 credits, take 24 to 30 months to complete a degree, and pay about $9,500.

'A Good Algorithm'

Mr. Schneider says the success of the venture, for Kaplan and for students, depends on the quality of the counseling and the costs of providing it. And that will depend on how much of it is based on online templates or personalized service.

"Obviously, if you have a good algorithm, then your price is really low," he says. And if Kaplan has that, he says, "more power to them. But if it’s human interaction, how can you do it for $195 a month?"

Competency-based degrees are not new, even in the for-profit-college sector. Capella University’s year-old FlexPath program, for example, now offers six degrees and enrolls abut 100 graduate and undergraduate students per quarter.

Peter Smith, president of the new Kaplan venture, says the free features of Open College set it apart. For example, at the nonprofit Western Governors University, he says, "you have to enroll" before you can know where you stand. "They do not help you figure all the stuff out prior to enrollment."

Mr. Smith is no stranger to higher education. Before joining Kaplan seven years ago, he was founding president of the Community College of Vermont, founding president of California State University-Monterey Bay, and a member of Congress. He says the offerings will help students who have accumulated learning but don’t know "how to turn it into something valuable to themselves."

The venture is not Kaplan’s first foray into prior-learning assessments. In 2011 the company announced a service it then called KNEXT that would, for a fee, advise students on preparing portfolios that demonstrated their expertise and qualifications and then submitting them for credit evaluation. But that effort didn’t catch on. In fact, Mr. Smith says, only two students outside of Kaplan University used the $1,500 service.

But within Kaplan University, thousands of students took advantage of a variant of that service in the form of a course. Kaplan Higher Education also created a free online pilot version, called the Learning Recognition Course, that it has been testing for the past year.

Mr. Smith says students who took the free online course or Kaplan's instructor-led version used it to turn their experiences into something of value: college credit. On average, the 100 or so students who took the online course requested 50 quarter-course credits and were awarded an average of 37. Those at Kaplan sought an average of 36 credits and were awarded 27.

A Gateway

Now that the online course will be a gateway to Open College@KU, students can take it at no cost to learn how to develop their expertise into a portfolio. Then, if they later elect to have their experience and skills assessed for credit, they will have several options: find another college willing to evaluate their portfolio for credit; pay NEXT (as KNEXT has since been renamed) to do an assessment for credit; enroll in Kaplan University or its Mount Washington College, which will waive the fees for assessing the credits; or enroll in the new Open College, which will assess the credits as part of the basic subscription price.

Kaplan hopes the venture will attract more students to its institutions. It also hopes to develop relationships with other institutions that would pay Open College a referral fee for students who enroll after having their credits evaluated and assessed.

At Open College most employees will be counselors and advisers who will help students develop individualized learning plans and locate free courses. Once students enroll and have their initial experiences assessed for credit, they will each pay $100 per course equivalent for additional assessments.

While Kaplan’s first learning-evaluation services never caught on outside of Kaplan University itself, Mr. Smith says he expects Open College will fare much better because the idea of competency-based education has been gaining favor among colleges and students. Also, with the rise of MOOCs, and open educational resources like those found at sites like the Open Education Consortium, there are now many more options for free and low-cost courses that students can use in pursuit of such degrees.