Last week our Institute’s Michelle R. Weise and Clayton Christensen published a new book, Hire Education, on a key trend in higher education: the emergence of online competency-based degree programs. These programs are poised to offer modularized curricula that can be tailored to hone particular skill sets for different industries. Many of them offer a comparable or even lower price tag than community colleges. Modularization of learning via competencies as opposed to courses enables these providers to meet the demands of employers. Weise and Christensen argue that the ‘embedded inefficiencies’ of traditional institutions—like time-based credit metrics and fixed faculty roles and costs—have made it difficult for traditional players to effectively pivot to meet workforce needs. Online competency-based institutions’ ability to corner this underserved pocket of the market, at a lower cost, positions them as a disruptive force in the higher ed industry.

What does this mean for our K-12 schools and students? Historically, nontraditional online higher ed providers like University of Phoenix or Kaplan University may have been beyond K-12’s radar because they tended to serve nontraditional students—that is, adults who were going back to school or pursuing a degree while holding down a full time job, rather than the high school seniors and recent high school graduates with whom college counselors and teachers work most closely. But in fact, as Weise and Christensen point out, more and more students today are so-called “nontraditional,” and only one-fifth of college students actually engage in a residential college experience. This, combined with unsustainable college tuition rates, means high schools should anticipate more and more of their students and graduates seeking out “less traditional” postsecondary options. As such, a number of interfaces between K-12 and these new online competency-based programs are worth noting:

(1) Ensuring a smooth transition to college success with good longitudinal data. The quality of online competency-based programs can be measured by the experience being validated by employers. But quality metrics should also account for programs’ ability to serve students coming to them from a variety of backgrounds. High schools can play a role in this accountability cycle. Some bold institutions—such as college coaching provider Beyond12 or the KIPP network’s KIPP through College initiative, to name a few—are working to help high schools hold themselves to seeing their students’ successfully reach college graduation. High schools and advocates that take on the task of tracking longitudinal data on students from high school to career can lend valuable insights both into how well-prepared high school students are upon entering this new breed of postsecondary institution, as well as how they fare within and after programs. This may also provide important data to high schools themselves. It may turn out, for example, that to effectively learn online or within a competency-based model, students need to hone particular hard or soft skills during high school. Having transparent and actionable longitudinal data is in the interest of both high schools and new postsecondary players to ensure their students’ success.

(2) Linking high school curricula to students’ career goals. Vocational-technical high school education has a spotty history of tracking disadvantaged students away from academic opportunities. As higher ed players, however, like those profiled in Weise and Christensen’s book, become more nimble at creating work-ready graduates geared toward particular professions, high schools might answer by helping students identify their career interests and goals earlier on. This doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of placing students in narrow, non-academic coursework. For example, some high school networks, like Big Picture Learning, MC2, and Cristo Rey arm students with extensive internship experiences designed to integrate learning in subjects like English language arts and math into real-world experiences. These internships also provide students with the chance to see a range of work places and professional paths. Other technology platforms such as Educurious, Nepris, and UnitedTeach, bring adult professionals into classrooms—using online video technologies—to teach lessons in their areas of expertise and expose students to a range of professional pathways.

Additionally, even if high schools are unable to offer courses that expose students to a range of career possibilities, down the line, high school curriculum could even incorporate courses from online competency-based providers themselves. In particular, in states where course access policies have taken root and seat-time waivers are made available for online coursework, high school students could dually enroll in online competency-based courses to earn high school credit. For example, Big Picture Schools in Providence has forged a partnership with Southern New Hampshire University to make online competency-based college-level courses available to its students.

(3) Flexible teacher training. Online competency-based programs may not only offer a new pathway for K-12 students, but also pave the way to new methods for training K-12 educators. For a number of years, we’ve witnessed vocal debates about how to effectively train teachers and how to evaluate teacher-training programs on the basis of their graduates’ performance once inside the classroom. Online competency-based programs may open up new opportunities to train teachers at a lower cost than traditional teacher prep programs. In addition, much as employer demands are shaping the competencies that these new institutions teach and assess, a healthy marketplace of online competency-based teacher prep programs could provide fertile ground for schools, researchers, and teacher advocates to articulate the particular competencies vital to successful teaching.

As Weise and Christensen are careful to point out, this new breed of institution is just now emerging; it is still a matter of time before online competency-based programs will be highly visible competitors in the higher ed space. But their unique structure makes them a viable competitor down the line. K-12 leaders committed to setting students up for postsecondary success would be wise to anticipate the effects this may have on their own students, structures, and professions.