Northeast Iowa Community College officials seek to start a new program that emphasizes students’ mastery of course materials over following a typical semester schedule.

School leaders are applying to offer a business administration certificate built on competency-based education, which if approved would be the first such program offered by NICC. In competency-based classes, students move through coursework at their own pace, with instructors serving as mentors and participants held to more stringent grade requirements.

“It’s really helping us fine-tune what you should get from a class, and how do you measure it so you’re sure they got it, and if they didn’t get it, then how do you give it to them differently so they have another opportunity,” said Kathy Nacos-Burds, vice president of learning and student success.

In competency-based classes, students would be able to move through the coursework as fast as they choose within the confines of a semester.

Students must earn an A or a B in the course in order to pass. However, students who don’t do well on an assessment work with their instructors and receive an alternate assessment to help them meet course competencies.

“The student has to have an 80% or above to really get the passing grade, (so) you really can be assured they are on the upper level of knowing the skills,” Nacos-Burds said.

NICC officials hope to launch the eight-course certificate this fall. While they are starting out with one competency-based certificate, Nacos-Burds said she could see the model expanding into other career-and-technical courses.

Jake Gantenbein, an instructor in NICC’s business department, has been piloting a competency-based course since last summer. His students have appreciated having the ability to work at their own pace.

“They just enjoy that freedom to, if something does pop up, they have that flexibility to play catch-up, or they have that flexibility to work ahead,” he said.

Other local colleges also have begun to explore competency-based learning options.

Gail Hayes, dean for academic affairs, graduate and adult studies at University of Dubuque, said officials are working with an external partner to start a program through which students become certified as financial planners. Those courses would focus on mastery of specific competencies.

Officials at Clarke University in Dubuque last summer launched their CareerPLUS program, through which adult learners take self-paced micro-courses that focus on building up competencies in specific workforce skills.

“I think adult learners are looking for very specific types of learning experiences, so it makes it easier for individuals and employers to really find courses that fit specifically what they’re looking for,” said Liz Kruse, director of Clarke’s Institute for Professional Excellence.

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