Southwestern College / File photo by Adriana Heldiz

For some Southwestern College students, the days of grades and in-person lectures may soon be gone. The Chula Vista community college is one of eight statewide chosen to develop what’s called a competency-based associate degree program.  

Here’s how it works: Instead of going to class and turning in homework, students will have to pass a series of assessments to prove they are competent in the college’s four general education fields like language and rationality and natural sciences and the major field, in this case automotive technology.  

The structure of the program allows students to move at whatever pace they’d like, and colleges are required to award credit for prior learning, whether it happened in or out of a classroom. That means students could potentially pass an assessment and demonstrate competency in a required field without tuning in to even a second of the online educational material the college will provide. That’s a dramatic shift away from the roughly thousands of hours students traditionally spent in class or working on assignments to earn a degree.  

It’s also something meant to cater to the kinds of students community colleges attract like older students who may be juggling work, school and families, said Randy Beach an English professor at Southwestern and the co-lead of the college’s competency-based education team.  

“Those students need flexibility,” Beach said. “That’s what (competency-based education) can offer.”  

This radical new model is just the latest educational innovation at California community colleges. In 2022, California Community Colleges introduced its first cohort of bachelor’s degrees allowed by a new state law.  

As I previously reported, that process proved to be messy because of contentious intersegmental turf wars over which systems can offer what degrees. 

Automotive Technology: A Match Made in Competency-Based Heaven 

When it came to picking the degree Southwestern would develop, Brian Palmiter, a professor and the faculty co-lead of the college’s CBE Project, said it was a “no-brainer.” Palmiter already taught automotive technology at Southwestern and said the trade was a natural fit for the competency-based approach.  

He’d long been irritated that students in the field were expected to take Scantron style tests when that had very little bearing on what the job would look like after they graduated. “Very often we get straight A students that lack any hands-on ability,” Palmiter said. He thinks going the competency-based approach builds value in the degree, because those who’ve earned it have had to “demonstrate that they have a practical application of that knowledge, not just that they can choose the best answer from a multiple-choice test.” 

That knowledge will include demonstrating competency in nearly 450 facets of automotive technology which correspond to the Automotive Service Excellence standards, ranging from transmissions to brakes to engines and beyond. That may be accomplished by spending time working with teachers in on-campus labs or submitting videos or other work when it comes to general education requirements.  

“Part of the development process has been helping people see education as something not defined by time and credit units (and instead) through content and assessment,” Beach said. 

Teachers will be available to students, but in some cases, they may not need them. Beach said this allows teachers to spend more time helping students who may need the most support and guidance rather than devoting time to those who may be ahead of the curve. But for the automotive technology components, all students will have to go through mandated safety overviews. 

Another benefit of the competency-paced approach, said Beach, is that it allows the entire program to be geared toward the degree students are getting.  

“One of the general ed areas is language and rationality – can students write. Well, we can do that contextualized for automotive technology in a way that makes the work more relevant to the student and their individual goals, both academic and professional,” Beach said. 

Southwestern hopes to have all their ducks in a row by fall of 2024, but there are multiple stumbling blocks. From figuring out how to calculate compensation when schooling is divorced from the course unit model to getting the approval by the U.S. Department of Education needed to receive financial aid to fine tuning what the transfer process would look like, a lot of things are still “pencil on paper,” said Mink Stavenga, the dean of Southwestern’s School of Business and Technology. 

Ultimately, Beach hopes this first cohort is just the beginning. Educators should keep equity at the forefront of their mind, he told me, and work to make education more accessible to students and more respectful of who they are and what their needs may be. How the rollout of competency-based degrees at community colleges plays out is still to be seen, but to Beach they’re a step in the right direction. 

“We have to change to be the institution that the student needs, not require the student to change to be the student we want,” Beach said. “And that’s a that’s a real mind shift in the in the way we do education.” 

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Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @jakobmcwhinney. Subscribe...

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