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NECC is First Public School in Nation to Offer a Competency-Based Early Childhood Degree

Submitted by on August 9, 2022 – 7:22 pm

Haverhill and Lawrence, MA (August 9, 2022) – This fall, Northern Essex Community College will offer a first-of-its-kind associate degree program. Students majoring in Early Childhood Education (ECE) will have the option to take all required degree and certificate courses in the competency-based education (CBE) model. This offering is the culmination of more than four years of work to give learners more flexibility in obtaining a degree. “To our knowledge, this is the first Early Childhood Education degree to be offered at a public college or university using CBE,” says Dean of Business and Professional Studies Jody Carson.

What is CBE?

Competency-based education addresses the needs of adults and other non-traditional learners, allowing them increased flexibility to start and complete courses online at their own pace. Many might already be working in the fields they are studying. CBE allows those students to demonstrate what they already know and accelerate through their coursework, then take more time when they are less familiar with the content or life gets busy. “Someone might be working at a childcare center and already know a lot about planning curriculum but might be less familiar with assessing and documenting development, for example,” says Carson.  “CBE would allow them to progress quickly through those courses where they already have a good grasp on the subject matter.”

Because all the courses are available online, the CBE ECE degree program can be completed from anywhere. Students have a required 330-hour in-classroom practicum; however, Carson says this can be done at a student’s workplace, and observations can be completed by the supervising college faculty member virtually.

“What I love about the CBE model is it allows a student to progress through the course at the pace that serves them best, which allows them to learn at their best,” Dean of Academic Innovations and Professional Development Marcy Yeager remarks. “The flexibility to have a really tough week in life and then jump back on track is invaluable.”

A History of CBE at NECC

In the fall of 2016, Northern Essex offered eight CBE courses, primarily in technology and engineering. The faculty in the ECE program began developing courses in the CBE model in the spring of 2017, adding a new certificate and later the development of the complete ECE Associate Degree program.  “Each course has been reviewed to ensure that we develop and assess competencies that align with industry standards, providing employer assurance that our graduates have real-world experience,” says Carson. This work is supported by the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education and its Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF).

“The primary objective of HEIF is to seed and support innovations and proven practices in public higher education, which are intended to significantly increase successful outcomes for traditionally under-served student populations,” says Dr. Winifred Hagan, senior associate commissioner for strategic planning and public program approval at the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. “Higher-level early educator qualifications are significantly correlated with higher quality early childhood education and care for children, including program structure, language development, and reasoning abilities. This very successful and promising innovation was created by and for Early Childhood Educators. The Department of Higher Education is proud to have funded it and is eager to watch it grow.”

The CBE courses required to complete the ECE degree were submitted to the New England Commission of Higher Education in January 2021 and approved in May 2021.

What’s next for CBE at NECC?

Eight CBE courses are offered at Northern Essex for the fall of 2022; six are general ed classes, such as English Composition I. Any student can enroll in those CBE general ed classes, regardless of major. Meanwhile, work has started to create an entirely CBE healthcare technician certificate.

Learn more about the ECE CBE degree program at NECC by visiting the webpage. View general information about Early Childhood Education at Northern Essex here.

Northern Essex Community College has campuses in both Haverhill and Lawrence. It offers approximately 60 associate degree and certificate programs and hundreds of noncredit courses designed for personal enrichment and career growth.  Each year, 6,000 students are enrolled in credit associate degree and certificate programs on the Haverhill and Lawrence campuses; another 2,000 take noncredit workforce development and community education classes on campus and at businesses and community sites across the Merrimack Valley.  For more information, visit the website at or call 978-556-3700.