Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) _ Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America is expanding its competency-based online program for working adults to include two $10,000 bachelor’s degrees.

Like the Manchester school’s existing associate degree program, the new program is offered through employers and has no traditional classes, instructors or grades. Instead, students work through material at their own pace and are evaluated on their mastery of skill areas. Advisers point them to free documents and other learning material, and students are encouraged to work with each other.

The online associate degree program was the first of its kind to be approved for federal financial aid, and college officials are seeking the same approval for the new bachelor’s degrees in health care management and communication. Both programs cost $2,500 per year, though employers often reimburse students.

About 800 students from more than 50 companies have enrolled in the existing program in the last year, and 20 of them have graduated. SNHU President Paul LeBlanc said employers ranging from McDonald’s to Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield appreciate that the competencies are tied to skills employees often lack, such as the ability to work in teams or basic writing skills, and that each skill is clearly defined.

“So many educational models are really based on inputs. … If you have enough Ph.D.s on your faculty, if you have enough volumes in your library, if you have enough incoming students with high-enough SAT scores, the assumption was, what comes out at the other end of the process is really good,” he said Monday. “But employers are increasingly skeptical of that claim.”

Students, meanwhile, appreciate that the programs accommodate what they already know and doesn’t require them to sit through weeks of classes.

“The love the idea that they’re in control of their learning,” he said.

Partners Healthcare, which includes Massachusetts General Hospital, has 46 students in the associate degree in business program. M.J. Ryan, director of workforce development, said the health system also is working with the college to develop a health care certificate for nonclinical workers. She expects both that and the associate degree program will feed students into the new bachelor’s degree program.

“It’s not the be-all and end-all … but it’s new, it’s innovative, and we’re excited,” she said. “I do think they right idea in making college accessible, especially to adults, and listening to employers. It’s early, but I’m happy we were able to get on their boat early and see how it sails.”

SNHU is among several colleges offering programs that award credit for what students learn, rather than for hours spent in class. The federal government said last year it will work with accrediting agencies and the broader higher education community to encourage such innovative approaches.

LeBlanc emphasized that the programs aren’t for everyone. And while he said he believes competency-based education will start influencing traditional higher education, comparing the two clouds the discussion, he said.

“This is really geared toward working adults and it’s really well designed for them,” he said.