Competency-Based Education Grows – Slowly but Steadily

A new survey shows sustained enthusiasm for competency-based education in the United States, as colleges and universities explore how to offer this learner-centered form of postsecondary education.



Inside Higher Ed reports that the survey shows competency-based education (CBE) has “spread slower than many expected, particularly given hype in recent years about its approach, which emphasizes what students know and can do, tends to be more focused on employer needs, and often features elements of personalization and self-pacing for students.”

CBE was endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education in 2013. The steady expansion since then demonstrates a deliberate approach by institutions, according to Amy Laitinen, director for higher education at New America’s program for Education Policy, “It’s growing thoughtfully and carefully, and that’s what we need,” Laitinen told Insider Higher Ed.


Most institutions interested in CBE

The survey, co-conducted by the American Institutes for Research and Eduventures, was based on responses from 501 colleges and universities. It found 57 colleges among the respondents were operating at least one competency-based credential, for a total of 512 programs. Meanwhile, 430 institutions reported they were either interested in CBE or in the process of developing a program.

The survey acknowledged various definitions of competency-based education, and found many colleges use elements of CBE while not fully adopting it. This approach sometimes is described as competency-based learning. For the purposes of the survey, however, the authors set the threshold as institutions offering an entire program that features at least one of the following characteristics:

1. Learning is measured in competencies, and either quantified without reference to seat time or mapped to measures of seat time;

2. Students advance from the course or complete the program based              on mastering all required competencies; or

3. Courses or programs can be substantially “self-paced” by students.


Advantages and barriers

The survey also asked the institutions what was most appealing about CBE programs. Among those with programs or in the process of adopting them, 55% saw an opportunity to provide options for nontraditional students, and 56% sought to better prepare students for the workforce.

The study authors identified several barriers to CBE implementation, with more than half of the respondents citing three:

  • Federal student aid regulations
  • Institutional business processes
  • Costs associated with program startup

“Because CBE may be a less familiar approach to teaching and learning, program leaders may encounter local barriers to implementation on their campuses, ranging from institutional processes and infrastructure to stakeholder buy-in. External factors, such as accreditation and financial aid regulations, also may affect an institution’s decision to implement CBE,” the authors wrote.


The employer perspective

An earlier study, by the American Enterprise Institute in 2015, found limited awareness of competency-based education among employers. The limited number of hiring managers in that survey who were aware of CBE held a favorable view. The report recommended that institutions offering CBE programs partner closely with employers:

“Given this lack of awareness and understanding in the marketplace, an opportunity exists for the field to engage employers more proactively as partners in CBE programs, something most hiring organizations strongly desire. Employer openness to further engagement presents a real opportunity for CBE providers to emphasize the potential impact of CBE programs not only on students, but also on the employers eager to hire them.”

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