Project-based, Competency-based Curriculum Design at College for America at Southern New Hampshire University

Author Information
Heidi L. Wilkes
Kaitlin LeMoine
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
College for America at Southern New Hampshire University
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

College for America (CfA) at Southern New Hampshire University aims to make a college degree achievable for every working adult by offering programs that are online, competency-based, project-based and directly applicable in the workplace. CfA’s curriculum is designed so that adult learners develop specific competencies through the completion of various workplace-relevant projects. CfA Projects are unique because they are designed around groups of competencies and set in fictional, yet realistic organizations. The organizations, each developed with a complete cast of characters, appear throughout the curriculum to provide continuity and familiar settings in which students demonstrate mastery of the competencies. (See supporting document “Drip&Dry.jpg.”) CfA Projects require students to assume roles in different scenarios and produce realistic workplace deliverables. An example might be an assignment from a supervisor to analyze customer survey data. The project-based curriculum approach is very effective with adult learners who already have life and employment experience, as it allows them to utilize what they already know and then learn what they need to know in order to master competencies embedded in a given project. This approach encourages a whole population of students who might not otherwise return to college to do so in a way that feels relevant to their lives and experiences.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

A chief complaint made by employers addresses the poor alignment between expectations and types of work completed by students enrolled in higher education and the actual skills (or competencies) that they need to be successful in the workplace (Sidhu & Calderon, 2014). Our practice of developing project-based competency-based curriculum that focuses on authentic workplace scenarios is designed to address that precise challenge. In the CfA approach to curriculum design, we are guided by the question, “What are the claims we wish to make about what our graduates know and can do?” These claims are made in the form of competencies. The next question we ask is, “What is the evidence that these claims are warranted?” Or, to put the question another way, how do we know that students have mastered these competencies? CfA Projects allow students to master competencies by applying workplace skills in realistic scenarios and assume roles in which they practice in a safe environment, taking as much time as necessary to achieve mastery (Muzzy Lane, 2016). We sometimes refer to our approach as a “simple simulation” because it does not involve expensive technology although we incorporate principles of game-based learning to drive student engagement.

The realistic project scenarios help students understand both why and how to use competencies. For example, students pursuing an AA in Healthcare Management might be asked to assume the role of an assistant to a medical practice director who needs to assess how the practice might continue to attract new patients while facing an increase in local competition from other medical providers. This Project requires students to develop competencies in logic, reasoning and analysis as well as problem-solving and concludes with the student writing a business memo. In this way, CfA has melded the demonstration of essential competencies with the creation of workplace-relevant deliverables.>/p>

Authentic project-based learning opportunities in which students can demonstrate what they know and can do serve as powerful assessment tools and an alternative mechanism very different from traditional exams or essays that might otherwise be used to assess student learning. Each CfA Project corresponds with a binary assessment rubric that contains a detailed set of criteria. Students must demonstrate mastery of all rubric criteria in order to master the Project.

Our practice of developing project-based and competency-based curricula is replicable in whole or in part. The project-based focus of our work and the integration of authentic workplace contexts can be implemented in any learning space, whether online or in the classroom. Instructors and curriculum developers can conduct their own preliminary research to design projects that would reasonably fit a particular profession or workplace context using detailed work activities (DWAs) of many professions that are openly accessible through the Bureau of Labor Statistics and O*Net. Having students complete projects set in relevant workplace contexts will serve them well once they graduate and move into the job market.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

CfA piloted its first CBE AA program in 2013 and has since replicated the model in several undergraduate programs. Currently we offer a Certificate in Healthcare Management Fundamentals, an Associate of Arts degree in General Studies with a concentration in Business, an Associate of Arts degree in Healthcare Management, a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications with concentrations in Business and Healthcare, a Bachelor of Arts degree in Healthcare Management with concentrations in Communications and Global Perspectives, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Management with concentrations in Insurance Services, Logistics and Operations, and Public Administration.

CFA’s curricula are reviewed and approved both through Southern New Hampshire University governance and the University’s accrediting agency, New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), which currently requires a separate review and approval process for all direct assessment programs. CfA is a leader in Competency-Based Education (CBE) and was, in 2013, the first institution to receive approval to offer Title IV federal financial aid under the U.S. Department of Education’s direct assessment provisions. While employers cover tuition for most CfA students, other students must rely on financial aid to cover the cost. CfA’s approval by the US Department of Education was regarded by many as a milestone event in CBE and higher education in the United States. Currently, all CfA programs are approved for Title IV funding.

CfA conducts quarterly student surveys to track student demographic and job data, projected CfA program debt, overall satisfaction and other items. Students are also asked to provided comments about how they think CfA could help them with their current and future job goals. In the third quarter of 2015 (July-Sept. 2015), 563 students answered all survey items. Of the students who responded, 0% anticipate having “no debt” at the end of the program, 10% anticipate total debt “between $1 and $2499” and 10% anticipate total debt “between $2500 and $4999.” Ninety-four percent of respondents “Agree” that CfA is a good value (73% Strongly Agree). These data speak to the affordability of CfA programs.

In the same survey, 98% of respondents reported working one or more jobs and 65% indicated that their current job is “Related” or “Very related” to what they are studying. Ninety-two percent “Agree” that CfA will help with future employment (53% “Strongly Agree”). Overall satisfaction was 96% “Satisfied” (67% “Very Satisfied”) and 96% of respondents were “Likely to Recommend” (80% “Very Likely”). These data speak to the effectiveness and potential impact of CfA programs.

Comments from respondents answering the question “Anything you would like to share about how you believe your CfA education will help you with your future job?” include:

  • “I am so glad that this program is out there. I did not do well with traditional college. This was my third attempt at college and I find that this program and I are a perfect fit. I love that I control what I am doing and can work when it is convenient for me. Thanks!!!!”
  • “I plan to start my own business in the future with the knowledge I gain from this experience.”
  • “I was not prepared for the real world before starting this program even though I have always worked. My job was specialized and I didn't have general skills to compete. I feel confident now that I can give a competitor a run for their money.”
  • “The skills and information I learn at CfA will help me refine a wealth of background experience. This is fine-tuning my knowledge and communication skills to a level that will greatly help me to excel in any job I hold in the future.”
  • “Thus far, my career was based on knowledge acquired through years of experience. Earning a degree has combined my experience with competencies, thus opened more opportunities in my career path.”
  • “Because of CFA, I have been encouraged to look for other positions within the company to grow.”
  • “It covers a lot of job related subjects, things that you will actually be doing. You learn not just for learning but you learn to be efficient and practical.”

To provide an external point of reference for our students’ performance, we administered the ETS® Proficiency Profile to AA students during October 2015. A sufficient number of students mid-way or further in their associate’s degree program (equivalent to sophomores) completed at least 75% of the exam which enabled us to benchmark our students’ proficiency to that of comparable students nationwide. The results showed that students who have completed half or more of the CfA AA degree compared favorably with similar students in their sophomore year across the country. (See supporting document “College for America Students.png.”)

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

The project-based competency-based approach to curriculum design specifically relates to the pillars of Scale, Access and Student Satisfaction. With respect to Scale, one of the goals of College for America is to continue to grow to serve more students at an affordable price. The degree programs that College for America offers are extremely cost effective at $3,000 per year. This is a total cost, as students are not required to to purchase any textbooks or supplemental materials. To make this possible, all projects incorporate educational resources that are either designed in-house or curated from open educational resources.

CfA extends access through affordability and flexibility of its programs. Once students enroll in any of our academic programs, they are able to access and complete as many projects as they can at their own pace. Additionally, all of the projects offered through College for America degree programs are self-contained, meaning that when students are ready to start a project, all of the necessary materials are available to them. The students do not need to wait for a new week or a new term or for a professor to upload materials in order to start; the projects are available to students when they are ready to begin work on them.

With respect to Student Satisfaction, the student testimonials included in this submission convey the high degree of satisfaction that students experience during their time in College for America degree programs. For many students, the workplace applicability of the project-based competency-based curriculum, the affordability, and the flexibility of the online self-paced programs stand out as unique. Students feel like they can apply what they have learned to their daily lives and their respective workplaces and also feel they can advance themselves to receive promotions or apply to new types of positions.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

No additional equipment is needed for CfA Curriculum and Assessment Developers to employ the project-based and competency-based design practice beyond what is already in use at CfA, namely computer and Internet access and licenses for the learning management system.

No additional equipment is required for students to access the curriculum beyond computer and Internet access.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

Applying CfA’s project-based, competency-based curriculum development process utilizes the following resources:

  • CfA curriculum and assessment developers - CfA full-time staff
  • Subject-matter Experts (SMEs) - part-time, project-specific contract staff

The additional costs for this practice are associated with SMEs in this process and vary by the type of project and industry and/or content discipline. The CfA Curriculum and Assessment (CAD) Team estimates an average SME cost of $600 per SME per Project.

References, supporting documents: 

Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation,. (2014). Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution. Lexington, MA: Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.

Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions,. (2015). Regional Accreditors Announce Common Framework for Defining and Approving Competency - Based Education Programs.

Fain, P. (2016, February 15). Measuring Competency. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Klein-Collins, R. (2013, November). Occasional Paper 20 - Sharpening Our Focus on Learning: The Rise of Competency-Based Approaches to Degree Completion. Retrieved from In-line Citation: (Klein-Collins, 2013).

Lester, S., & Costley, C. (2010). Work‐based learning at higher education level: Value, practice and critique. Studies in Higher Education, 35(5), 561–575.

Sidhu, P., & Calderon, V. (2014, February 26). Many Business Leaders Doubt U.S. Colleges Prepare Students. Retrieved December 01, 2014, from (Sidhu & Calderon, 2014).

Snow, B. (2016, January 19). Game-based learning and nontraditional students – A report. Muzzy Lane Software. Retrieved January 21, 2016, from In-line Citation: (Snow, 2016).

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Heidi L. Wilkes
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Effective Practice Contact 2: 
Kaitlin LeMoine
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