Big Picture Learning Pilots Dual Enrollment with College for America

College for America (CfA) is a competency-based degree program for working adults and their employers. The project-based AA in General Studies for Business is organized around 120 competencies that, for example, include:

  • Defining and using marketing terminology and concepts
  • Generating a variety of approaches to addressing a problem
  • Conveying information by creating charts and graphs

Students demonstrate these competencies by completing real-world projects. Experienced learners can choose a fast path to show what they know while a more supported path is available for new content. CfA, a program of Southern New Hampshire University, costs $2500 per year regardless of pacing. (See feature on CfA and the Motivis platform).

We recently reported about efforts by a Boston charter school to extend access to the innovative degree program to low-income high school graduates. The program called Match Beyond, piloted with 49 students in 2014, marries the innovative CfA program with intensive coaching, academic support and jobs counseling from Match Education. The goal of the program is to produce high degree completion rates and employment for young adults in Boston who either never went to college or who left high school before completion.

Match Beyond now serves 110 students; 102 students enrolled in the Associate’s program, 8 have completed the Associate’s degree and moved on to the Bachelor’s program. Nearly all of our students are from low-income backgrounds and currently between the ages of 18 and 35.  Over 80% receive federal Pell grants to support their college education, most hold at least one job, and many are responsible for caring for children or other family members.

Big Picture Learning. Steve Brown was a high school teacher for 17 years before joining CfA. In addition to coordinating the Match Beyond partnership, Brown is supporting a high school pilot project with Big Picture Learning.

Big Picture Learning schools take seriously the motto of “one student at a time.” They work with each student to co-construct internships in areas of interest.

When investigating dual enrollment options for Big Picture Learning, the applied and project-based CfA curriculum seemed like a natural fit to Tracy Money, VP of Strategy and Planning for College Unbound, Big Picture Learning’s adult learning initiative. (We connected with Tracy 15 years ago when she started a small school in eastern Washington).  

The CfA curriculum is being piloted with 60 students at three Big Picture Learning campuses in Providence with the intent of awarding dual credit for successful demonstrations of mastery.

Most Providence Big Picture Learning graduates leave with about 4 college credits. The CfA pilot increases that to an average of 12 to 15 credits, with some students earning an associate’s degree by the time they graduate high school. (Two Big Picture Learning seniors were handed their AA degree simultaneously with their high school diploma at their May 2015 graduation.) Because 80% of the students live in or near poverty, that’s a big deal.

Here’s the catch: Unlike the postsecondary Match Beyond students, Big Picture Learning high school students are not Pell eligible so funding this innovative partnership is a challenge. CfA footed the tuition bill for the pilot but the partnership is looking for ways to scale the initiative.

Traditional dual enrollment is supported with portable funding but in this case, Big Picture Learning teachers support program delivery and CfA staff provide support and assessment. While there’s some potential for a high school discount on the $1250 per semester cost, the program can’t scale without reimbursement.

Pell eligibility for high school dual enrollment is one possibility but we’d rather see slightly enriched funding (perhaps 15-20%) from states for dual enrollment to support high school and college costs. That’s a bargain compared to current college subsidies and efforts to promote free college like the Tennessee Promise.

In the meantime, the Big Picture Learning and Match Beyond pilots deserve philanthropic support. Access to programs like these should be available in every community.   

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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