Giving Momentum to the Competency-Based Education Movement

Whether it is in the news and television commercials or cropping up in proposed legislative and regulatory changes, “competency-based education” continues to dominate the conversation around innovation in higher education. And for good reason; there are hundreds of forward-thinking institutions that are offering CBE programs. Many of these programs are offered via the credit hour, while some are offered via direct assessment, which measures progress through the demonstration of competencies instead of the accumulation of credit hours.

Either way, these programs are designed to be professionally-relevant, aligned to learning outcomes that employers expect, and often allow students to move at a personalized pace. Altogether, this is the recipe for success for the contemporary student who is often bringing some experience to her degree program and always juggling personal and professional demands on her time.

In a world where higher education continues to often be constructed around the perceived needs of 18-22-year-olds, competency-based education is providing a way for the “non-traditional” students – working adults who are now the majority of college-going students – to efficiently and effectively access, and complete, postsecondary education. But we’ll always have more work to do to expand the field and to ensure that institutions are able to innovate responsibly. Here are three key priorities on the docket for the success of the CBE movement moving forward.

Employer engagement. First, CBE institutions – and really, all postsecondary institutions – need to continue to work to bring employers to the table. Graduates from competency-based education programs are well-equipped – often with competency maps and transcripts to prove it – to show career readiness and advancement potential because their programs are designed to be professionally relevant through a marriage of theory and practice. Employers both inform the design of such programs as well as benefit from prepared graduates who complete them. Still, the CBE field needs to advocate for and build greater understanding with employers and workforce organizations. Until employers and the general public accept and support competencies that are verified and documented through CBE, employers will continue to look to more traditional methods, such as grades and degree titles, of assessing employment readiness.

Remove antiquated barriers. Second, CBE institutions, stakeholders, and funders need to remove the operational barriers that prevent institutions from advancing competency-based education in a sustainable way. Largely, these barriers are a result of an outdated federal financing construct based on inputs and built around the needs of the traditional full-time student. Until federal financial aid rules better support disbursements based on demonstrated learning and progress, many institutions will struggle to find the means to invest in the infrastructure that supports a departure from the credit hour system.

And finally: data data data! Between the Department of Education Experimental Site Initiatives, the work that groups like American Institutes for Research are undertaking, and the diligence of committed institutions, there exists myriad data that tell the stories of the impact that CBE programs are making. But there is more to be learned here. Such stories, learnings, and data need to continue to be aggregated, and thoughtful work needs to be done to understand how these programs are best meeting the needs of today’s contemporary student.

For example, in an analysis of comparable undergraduate populations from Capella University’s traditional credit hour and direct assessment options for the same bachelor’s degree, among students who enrolled between October 2014 and December 2015, direct assessment graduates paid 58% less and borrowed 40% less in federal student loans than their credit hour counterparts. And, these results are not unique to Capella – across the country, competency-based education programs are providing high-quality, relevant education that is enabling students to save time and money as they pursue credentials that signal learning that matters. We also know that many students are experiencing professional gains due to their competency-based education program even before they earn their credential.

Measuring success at points along the path to a degree is a largely untapped opportunity that can tell the story of the effectiveness of CBE programs. For example, personalized pacing is often conceptualized as the ability for a student to go faster than they could in a traditional format. However, many students in CBE programs do move more quickly, it’s not uncommon for many CBE students to move at the same pace as they would have in a traditional program. For these students, the key is that personalized pacing provides them with the flexibility to participate in access to higher education. Though these students may not have saved time or money, their access and ability to finally attend college cannot be understated as a victory.

Ultimately, the health and success of CBE as a field requires institutions, lawmakers, and employers to ensure that students access to the highest quality programs that serve them well. By developing shared metrics of success, fostering connections to employers, removing barriers, and enhancing transparency, we can scale competency-based education nationwide with the quality and positive lifelong impact today’s students deserve.

Jillian Klein is the Vice President, Government & Regulatory Affairs at Strategic Education, Inc., parent company of Capella University and Strayer University.