Competency-Based Higher Education Breaks Barriers for Immigrants

Rebecca Watts

Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), a non-profit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that currently serves more than 800 Connecticut students and has more than 1300 alumni in the state.

Immigrants to any country face many obstacles, and sometimes highly skilled and college-educated immigrants encounter barriers when trying to apply their skills and knowledge in their new home. For those holding an H1B visa or achieving U.S. citizenship, enrolling in an accredited, online U.S. college or university can help them overcome these barriers. And pursuing that pathway at the lowest possible cost is essential, especially for those who don’t yet hold citizenship and don’t have access to federal and state financial aid.

The roughly 44 million immigrants to the United States are better educated than ever, Pew Research points out. As recently as 2016, 17 percent of immigrants 25 and older had earned a bachelor’s degree; another 13 percent held a postgraduate degree. However, these immigrants often find that U.S. employers are reluctant to accept their education credentials.

This disconnect, which the Migration Policy Institute calls brain waste, leaves more than 2.2 million college-educated immigrants working in low-skilled jobs or unemployed in the U.S. labor market. Connecticut’s 520,000 immigrants make up 15 percent of the state’s population, according to the American Immigrant Council, and a sizable slice of the state’s workforce. The Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants, based in Bridgeport, is on the frontlines responding to an array of immigrant challenges, including economic mobility.

For immigrants a key to the path forward is building on learning completed outside the U.S. For these hard-working members of our community, the competency-based model offers flexible pacing and asynchronous learning, meaning students can complete their degree in a way that fits their day-to-day lives, including full-time employment. In this innovative model, students must complete a minimum number of competency units per term to meet on-time progress goals, but they can choose when to study and when to complete assignments as their busy schedules allow.

For example, when Hartford resident Jayanta Kar came to the U.S. from India at age 31, he had already earned a software engineering diploma and had been a working information technology professional for many years. U.S. employers wanted to see a U.S. college degree on his resume, but an on-campus college experience would be impossible for him, given his full-time work schedule and family responsibilities.

Competency-based education, which Western Governors University (WGU) pioneered in 1997, helps immigrants earn U.S. degrees. Immigrants who already hold degrees can move through courses by demonstrating their mastery of the material, applying their knowledge to accelerate their education rather than simply accumulating a set amount of credit hours.

After researching his options, Jayanta applied to WGU because the competency-based model would allow him to leverage the expertise he already had and study at times that fit his schedule. Driven by the goal of advancing his U.S. career, he completed his bachelor of science in software development in 14 months, and then went on to earn a master of science in IT management in 2019. He says that receiving timely, one-to-one support from his faculty mentor, who ensured he stayed on track to make his education goals, made all the difference. He is currently an applications architect for a prominent insurance carrier in Connecticut.

For Jayanta and so many like him, overcoming barriers and challenges along the way having the personalized support of a dedicated faculty mentor is especially important when navigating the educational system in a new country.

Immigrants to Connecticut–often attracted here by jobs with companies that Connecticut is working diligently to attract, retain and expand–help respond to clear and compelling workforce needs.

The Governor’s Workforce Council reported last year that “information technology is one of the highest-growth sectors in the US economy and can provide significant employment and business growth for Connecticut, if the state can address its talent shortfalls.” The Council noted that “there are currently 5,888 open computing jobs,” adding that “on a long-term basis, as many as 13,000 people will be required in IT and business services.”

As Connecticut seeks to jumpstart an economy hobbled by a year of coronavirus shutdowns, a workforce running on all cylinders is a prerequisite. Existing gaps in the states’ workforce provide real opportunities with employers across the industry spectrum. Education remains, as it has always been, an essential element for individuals–as well as business and organizations–determined to move forward.


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