Capella University’s competency-based FlexPath program just announced one of their first graduating class–and they may just be the best of the best.

capella-flexpath-learnersYou could almost call the program a trial for those who say they want to be serious professionals: know which skills you need to improve; improve those skills; self-motivate; rely on little additional explanation; reach your goals.

Capella University–an accredited online institution founded in 1993–has gained the reputation of being among the foremost innovators driving competency-based education (CBE) in the higher-ed landscape, thanks to its FlexPath program.

Developed in 2012 and approved by the Department of Education in August 2013, FlexPath became the first program in the U.S. to offer competency-based bachelor’s and master’s degree programs that use an approved direct-assessment learning model.

In January 2015, FlexPath enrolled its 1,000th learner. The program also just graduated its first students. And according to them, FlexPath changed their lives…but effortless it was not.

(Next page: Faculty and students weigh in on the FlexPath experience)

How it works

The primary focus of the program allows students to learn on their own schedule and at their own pace, aiming to give learners the opportunity to save time and money. FlexPath does away with faculty-led discussions and assignments, as well as any preset deadlines; instead, leaving it up to the student to complete all of their assignments within a 12 week time frame.

Students pay one flat tuition rate every 12 weeks, can complete as many courses as they are able in this time period. They can only be enrolled in two courses at a time, but take as many in the quarter as they are able.

To complete the program, students who believe they have learned the material demonstrate their mastery of  key competencies by submitting papers which faculty review and provide feedback within 48 hours.

The core mission of the program, says the University, is to help build skills employers are looking for.

Tailored to a unique type of student

What may initially sound like the world’s easiest way to obtain job-approved skills, actually takes a lot of personal learning skills many students today may not possess; for example, self-motivation, responsibility, and skill-savviness.

“It’s not for someone right out of high school,” said John Scafide, a FlexPath learner who just earned a BS in Business Administration after having already been a professional in his field. “Business professionals understand the topics easier due to their experience in the field, which makes it easier to write and validate concepts on a paper. You’re really challenged to try and teach yourself and learn the topics and theories behind what we do. It’s all about integrating and bridging your experiences with theory.”

Though the program is focused on independent learning, the graduates were sure to make clear that they were not completely left to their own devices, as Capella provides support services including faculty, personal FlexPath coaches, tutoring services, discussion boards, a writing center, library, and other online academic tools.

“When I got [papers] back, I got a lot of comments that were very in-depth,” Scafide noted. “Faculty fully understand what they’re talking about, and want to help. If we don’t have honest feedback, we’re not learning.”

“For faculty, those who love to teach, teach,” said Dr. Cheryl Bann, chair of the MBA program. “Teaching is helping somebody master something in order to really know and understand the topic. When we designed the model, it was very important for everyone who came together to make sure learners were getting the faculty attention they deserved if they needed it…[as well as] stretch their thinking. You really do form a relationship because of the work going back and forth…learners are not just submitting stuff to a black hole.”

Tapitha Jamison, another from-the-field FlexPath learner who just earned a BS in Business Administration, reported a particularly positive experience working with her FlexPath coach–essentially an all-in-one tutor, guidance counselor and professor–noting their ability to help her structure her course path to benefit whatever her needs at the time were in the workplace.

“My advisor was such a great influence, and had a great deal of patience…in helping me to really put it all together,” Jamison said.

“When I started FlexPath, I just couldn’t get self-motivated,” Scafide said. “But Capella has great networking resources. Some brick and mortar schools don’t care; sure you’re in a classroom, but there’s not as many resources. But thanks to Capella’s social media, you can directly communicate with other learners who are easily accessible and supportive.”

Scafide also said he spent about 5-7 hours per week focused solely on reading papers, journals, online resources, and course texts to gain as much background knowledge as possible.

Although there were times Jamison wished she could turn to more tutoring during particularly challenging courses, she ultimately appreciated the moments in which she was forced to struggle and figure things out on her own.

“Our whole program is competency-based, so it wasn’t always meant for me to talk it through because I needed to show I knew it myself,” Jamison said. “And even when you weren’t sure of something, you were still constantly so equipped with information on why you may have failed.”

(Next page: Do employers acknowledge FlexPath?)

For an already-professional, absolutely

“My employer 100 percent supports Capella, so it was a no-brainer to pick it over other online colleges,” explained Scafide. “They want you to go to school, learn, and get your degree. Since completing the program, I’m already in talks of looking to advance.”

Rather than complete numerous company development courses, Jamison appreciated the focus of FlexPath.

“This was all inclusive, and gave me everything I needed without having to go outside to do anything else,” Jamison said. “The program is focused on job readiness…and core skills instead of book knowledge.”

Working as a senior assistant at TIAA-CREF since enrolling in the program in May 2012, Jamison feels confident that she now has a more diverse skill set that will enable her to advance within her field, and has already had the opportunity to work as a junior business analyst since completing her degree.

However, Jamison and Scafide are not the only ones benefiting from their FlexPath education. Held on March 7th, Capella University proudly handed degrees to over 1,200 graduates [both in FlexPath and other programs] in a commencement ceremony taking place in Washington, D.C.

“To know where I am today is so humbling,” Jamison said. “When I graduated, my life was kind of flashing before me, and I knew I was in a good place and going places after so many difficult, trying, emotional issues along the way.”

“For 12 years after high school I’ve been a journeyman of schools,” Scafide recounted. “It meant so much to finally get to this point and graduate. The entire experience was great and made everyone feel like one big family.”

“At commencement I had the opportunity to talk to a number of FlexPath learners,” Bann recounted. “Learners really take charge of the program…and go as far and as deep as they want. As we look to meet the needs of a growing diversity of students, different approaches come to the forefront. We want to help everybody be their best, and that’s what this program does.”

“The FlexPath program was very exciting, became challenging, but by graduation was very rewarding,” Scafide said. “It helped me become able to teach myself, motivate myself, and put theory and experience together. It’s a great way to inspire learning, and to get more professionals to learn.”

Currently, FlexPath is only available for Business, Information Technology and Psychology degree programs, though Capella representatives noted that the University hopes to expand the program even further.

“I don’t know if there are many disciplines this wouldn’t work in,” said Kim Pearce, the academic lead for FlexPath.

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