Competency-Based Education

Articles related to shifting the focus of education to competencies as opposed to credit hours and seat time are presented.

Related Articles

Policy Snapshot: Competency-Based Education

The Education Commission of the States has put together a summary of legislative activities and resources from 2016 to 2017 on Competency-Based Education (CBE).

The Complex Universe of Alternative Postsecondary Credentials and Pathways

A new paper by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences provides an in-depth analysis of alternative credentials that can serve either as alternatives to a college degree or a pathways to complete a degree. Included is an overview on certificate programs, work-based training, and competency-based education (CBE) programs.

What competency-based education looks like. (2014, Fall) The Presidency: The American Council of Education’s Magazine for Higher Education Leaders, pp 18-19.

This is an infographic about three different models of competency-based education. The infographic covers “more conventional,” “middle of the road,” and “less conventional” forms of competency-based education. Within these categories, the infographic examines the role of faculty, technology and fee structures, among other categories. This is a good source for a big picture understanding of competency-based education.

Competency-Based Education: History, Opportunities, and Challenges

This literature review traces some major landmarks in the growth of competency-based education (CBE), including the development of concepts of curriculum mapping and competency frameworks, the current state of CBE implementation, and challenges remaining.

Johnstone, S. M., & Soares, L. (2014). Principles for developing competency-based education programs. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 46(2), 12-19. doi: 10.1080/00091383.2014.896705. Retrieved from EBSCO.

This article offers five detailed principles for higher education institutions to follow when developing new competency-based education (CBE) programs. The five principles not only work as a guide, but are also intended to inform decision-making throughout the process.

Sandeen, C. A. (2014, Fall). Competency-Based Education is not the ‘new MOOC.” The Presidency: The American Council of Education’s Magazine for Higher Education Leaders, pp 20-22.

Within this short article, Sandeen argues that it is a mistake to think of competency-based education as a new movement equal to massive open online courses (MOOCs). Among the multiple reasons that she presents, some of them include realizing that competency-based education has been around longer than massive open online courses, that competency-based education has more structure in the form of outcome assessments and faculty engagement, and that competency-based education is heavily influenced by employers. For these reasons, among others, Sandeen argues that we should see the comparison between competency-based education and massive open online courses as misleading.

Schneider, C. G. (2013). If competency is the goal, then students’ own work is the key to reaching it. Liberal Education: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 99(4), 2.

In the context of this periodical’s topic regarding Massive Open Online Courses, Schneider argues that competency-based learning should be a guiding factor in higher education. In particular, with the rise of contingent labor and the increasing potential for a lack of educational coherence or consistency within higher education, faculty need to become more vocal and transparent about the skills being taught to students. However, such competency-based learning should not be reduced to one-time course requirements or merely passing examinations; rather, more thought needs to go into how competency-based learning is both a continuous practice and process of assessment.

Making the Case for Competency-Based Education: Early Lessons From the Field. Retrieved from: Source

The American Institutes for Research (AIR) released a brief which discusses seven considerations education leaders must make when attempting to make the case for competency-based education (CBE). Included in these considerations are creating clear value statements, clearly describe your program, and use appropriate comparison methods.

Book, P.A. (2014, May). All hands on deck: Ten Lessons from early adopters of competency-based education. Boulder, CO: WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET). Retrieved from: Source  

The author provides a snapshot of seven competency-based education (CBE) postsecondary programs to better understand how CBE programs can be developed, and offers ten lessons practitioners have learned in the design of competency-based education.

Cleary, M.N. (2015, December). Faculty and staff roles and responsibilities in the design and delivery of competency-based programs: A C-BEN Snapshot. Competency-Based Education Network. Retrieved from: Source  

This report presents the results of a Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) survey focused on documenting the roles/responsibilities of faculty and staff involved in designing and delivering CBE curricula.

Public Agenda (2015). Shared design elements and emerging practices of competency-based education programs. New York, NY: Public Agenda. Retrieved from: Source  

This publication describes ten shared design elements of CBE programs ranging from organizational viability to the learning experience.

CBE online design planner: Retrieved from: Source  

This interactive tool is designed to guide you through the ten design elements that are key to creating a quality CBE program.

Thibeault, N., Amato, C., Siefert, D., & Richie, D. (2015). Strategies for transformative change: Adopting and adapting competency-based education. Champaign, IL: Office of Community College Research and Leadership, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved from: Source  

This resource provides details on how four components of the CBE model were uniquely implemented at three colleges.

Adelman, C. (2014). Competence: What do we need to read and think about? Washington, DC: Institute for Higher Education Policy. Retrieved from: Source  

This paper aims to illuminate deep assumptions about the nature of “competence,” and to reflect on what lies underneath their structures, processes, and delivery systems.

Desrochers, D.M., & Staisloff, R.L. (2016). Competency-based education: A study of four new models and their implications for bending the higher education cost curve. RPK Group. Retrieved from: Source

This study discusses the opportunity that competency-based education (CBE) has to reduce education costs to students through unbundling faculty responsibilities and making use of technology to allow larger class sizes without reducing the quality of education.

Porter, S.R. (2016). Competency-based education and federal student aid. Journal of Student Financial Aid, 46(3), 2-15. Retrieved from: Source

This article discusses how federal laws and regulations could be changed to allow for the use of federal student aid for competency-based education (CBE).

CAEL. (2016). Lord Fairfax Community College: Knowledge to work. The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL). Retrieved from: Source

This case study is part of a series on competency-based degree programs that have been emerging in recent years.

Competency-Based Education in the News


Lederman, D. (2012, April 30). Credit Hour (Still) Rules. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from: Source

This article describes Western Governors University’s attempt to link student learning to assessments rather than the standard credit hour.

Fain, P. (2012, June 8). The Next Big Thing, Almost. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from: Source

An article on barriers to quality competency-based education in higher education. A white paper, “A ‘Disruptive’ Look at Competency-Based Education: How the Innovative Use of Technology Will Transform the College Experience,” is also available from the Center for American Progress.

Klein-Collins, R. (2012). Competency-Based Degree Programs in the U.S.: Postsecondary Credentials for Measurable Student Learning and Performance. Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. Retrieved from: Source

CAEL’s latest report which addresses using student assessment in competency-based degree programs.

Klein-Collins, R. (2013, November). Sharpening Our Focus on Learning: The Rise of Competency-Based Approaches to Degree Completion (Occasional Paper No. 20). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

This Occasional Paper defines unifying concepts shared by different competency-based education programs, describes current competency-based models using the direct assessment approach, and examines the national policy context that could determine the extent to which these programs are able to go to scale.

Klein-Collins, R., & Baylor, E. (2013). Meeting students where they are, profiles of students in competency-based degree programs. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. Retrieved from: Source 

This report demonstrates the qualities of competency-based learning and identifies commonalities among student experiences that can inform the policy priorities for those looking to expand and reform postsecondary educational offerings.

Achieve, Inc. (2015). Postsecondary support for competency-based high school transcripts. Retrieved from: Source  

This brief offers guidance and recommendations about what would be needed for postsecondary education to signal its support for competency- or proficiency-based transcripts.

The Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning and the Internet. (2014). Learner at the center of a networked world. Retrieved from: Source

This report from the Aspen Institute offers principles and action steps for creating effective learning environments for today’s young people.

Western Governors University – Competency-Based Learning. Website

A link to Western Governor’s University’s website that explains their use of competency-based education in their program.

University of Wisconsin System Flex Option. Website

Offers a survey “Flex Fit Self-Assessment” for students to see if the program is right for them, as well as other resources.

PBS News Hour reports on CBE

A report by Hari Sreenivasan offers insight on CBE and a way to implement it for online courses. Instead of relying on the credit hour system, students are assessed on 120 core competencies. Report

Additionally, an article by Elizabeth Jones discusses flexible credit systems and competency-based education. Article

A Case for a Competency-Based Degree (posted 9/9/2014) Retrieved from: Source

This article recognizes the success of colleges and universities in Indiana in establishing competency-based programs, and makes a case for a wider implementation in other higher education institutions in Indiana. Correspondingly, Purdue University is set to create a cross-disciplinary competency-based bachelor’s degree (as reported on Inside Higher Ed).

New Directions for Higher Education: Q&A with CAEL’s Tate on Prior Learning, Competency-Based Ed (posted 9/2/14) Retrieved from: Source

In this interview, Pamela Tate, president and CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, addresses the topics of competency-based education (CBE) and prior learning assessment (PLA). Tate gives her take on how these concepts impact student completion rates, and what it may take in order for CBE to be widely implemented.

Innovative Direct Assessment Programs Show Promise (posted 8/23/2014) Retrieved from: Source

Institutions are beginning to lay the groundwork for direct competency-based education and direct assessment programs in higher education. These measures aim to move higher education from the credit hour standards towards a more personalized approach.

Report on Competency-Based Education and Federal Student Aid (posted March, 2014) Retrieved from: Source

The Department of Leadership, Policy and Adult and Higher Education at North Carolina State University released a report on the current approaches to federal funding for students in competency-based education programs. The report also includes possible changes that can be made to current approaches in how aid is disbursed.

Jumpstarting Competency-Based Ed. (posted 4/28/14) Retrieved from: Source

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) selected fourteen institutions to participate in a “jumpstart” program for developing degree programs based on competencies instead of credit hours.

Watch and Learn (posted 4/22/14) Retrieved from: Source

University developed a competency-based framework for 22 majors in the College of Professional Studies that combines competency-based credits and conventional courses. Entering students begin the program by participating in a day-long process of assessments to earn credits for prior learning and performance.

20 Colleges Are Picked for Effort on Competency-Based Education (posted 3/5/14) Retrieved from: Source

The Competency-Based Education Network selected 18 institutions to participate in a group that will address challenges and obstacles to designing and developing competency-based education programs.

Competency vs. Open-Ended Inquiry (posted 2/21/14) Retrieved from: Source

This author questions whether competency-based education can lead to open-ended inquiry and critical thinking and if it will truly allow students to demonstrate a deeper understanding of subject material.

‘Competency’ and Residential Colleges (posted 2/7/14) Retrieved from: Source

With the latest trend of competency-based education, residential liberal arts colleges are aiming to prove why learning in a residential setting is better.

Badging From Within (posted 1/3/14) Retrieved from: Source

The University of California at Davis created a digital badge system that focuses on competency- based education and knowledge learned outside of the classroom. The badging system does not replace college credentials, and it allows students to communicate the experiential learning in which they have engaged.

Profiles of Students in Competency-Based Education (posted 11/8/13) Retrieved from: Source

A report released by the Center for American Progress chronicles students enrolled in competency-based programs. The report is aiming to identify the positive qualities and commonalities that exist among their experiences and competency-based education.

Will Future College Degrees Be Based More on Experience Than Classroom Time? (posted 11/6/13) Retrieved from: Source

Advocates for competency-based education continue to promote the positive aspects of learning outside of the classroom and demonstrating acquired knowledge, skills and abilities that can translate into earning a degree.

Are You Competent? Prove It. Degrees Based on What You Can Do, Not How Long You Went. (posted 10/29/13) Retrieved from: Source

Several institutions are now offering low cost competency-based programs which use a student-centered model, but critics have concerns that these programs focus too heavily on skills and outcomes rather than disciplines and the higher education experience.

Competency-Based Education Goes Mainstream in Wisconsin (posted 9/30/13) Retrieved from: Source

The University of Wisconsin will start its competency-based education program, called Flex Option, later this year. The program is designed to increase the number of degree holders in the state, but faculty members responsible for designing assessments for the Flex Option are skeptical that the program will meet academic standards.

Medical Education in Canada Moves to a Competency-based Approach (posted 9/4/13) Retrieved from: Source

Canadian medical education is introducing a competency-based approach that will require students to progress through milestones before they can move to the next level. The program will also include individual e-portfolios so students can see their demonstrated competencies as they advance.

Competency-Based Transcripts (posted 8/9/13) Retrieved from: Source

Students enrolled in a new competency-based program at Northern Arizona University will receive a second transcript called a “competency report,” which outlines students’ proficiency in required concepts. Some assessment experts claim that, while they are not ideal, the competency reports may provide more substantive evidence of student learning than the traditional transcript.

Education Department Approves Competency-Based Program at Capella U. (posted 8/12/13) Retrieved from: Source

Capella University’s competency-based FlexPath program has received approval from the US Department of Education. The program is online, self-paced and allows for assessment based on demonstrated competencies rather than credit hours.

Competency-Based Education Advances with U.S. Approval of Program (posted 4/18/13) Retrieved from: Source

With the U.S. Department of Education’s approval to receive federal financial aid for students, Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America program is moving forward to offer an associate degree based on demonstrating competencies instead of credit hours.

Deconstructing CBE: An Assessment of Institutional Activity, Goals, and Challenges in Higher Education. Retrieved from: Source

A new report helps to better understand the state of and growth prospects of Competency-Based Education (CBE) implementation in higher education. The project also highlights some of the 251 participating institutions to serve as examples on how CBE can be implemented.

Smither, C., Parsons, K., Peek, A., & Soldner, M. (2016). Key characteristics of postsecondary Competency-Based Education programs: A descriptive rubric. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from: Source

The American Institutes for Research released a descriptive rubric for Competency-Based Education (CBE) programs that identifies critical features of CBE programs and analyzes key aspects of CBE programs and how they appear in each program. Some of the CBE elements that the rubric looks into include assessment, financial aid and tuition, and program flexibility.

Launching a Unique Competency-Based Offering at a Community College. Retrieved from: Source

John Milam, executive director of Knowledge to Work at Lord Fairfax Community College (LFCC), was interviewed by the Evolllution to uncover aspects of LFCC’s unique Competency-Based Education (CBE) program. In part 1 of the interview, Milam touches upon the launch process and challenges for the CBE program which makes use of open education resources via its website. Part 2 of the interview focuses on LFCC’s CBE program’s place in the market and differences between LFCC’s CBE program and traditional postsecondary programs.

Journal of Competency-Based Education (JCBE). Retrieved from: Source

The Journal of Competency-Based Education, published by Western Governors University and John Wiley & Sons, Inc., is a peer-reviewed electronic journal that aims to disseminate theoretical and empirical knowledge related to Competency-Based Education and its evolution.

Sturgis, C. (2017). The Field of CBE in Higher Education and K12. Competency Works. Retrieved from: Source

This resource explores how CBE is evolving in higher education and K-12

Phillips, K., & Schneider, C. (2016). Policy, pilots and the path to Competency-Based Education: A tale of three states. ExcelinEd in partnership with Getting Smart.  Retrieved from: Source

This new report from ExcelinEd and Getting Smart aims to persuade states to implement pilot competency-based education (CBE) programs through providing three examples of states – Idaho, Utah, and Florida – that took different paths toward implementing their own CBE pilots. The insights learned from these examples inform recommendations and strategies for states seeking to advance CBE.

The Evolllution’s Articles on Competency-Based Education (CBE)

Navigating the CBE Frontier: Creative and Alternative Student Support for Creative and Alternative Models of Education discusses CBE, provides examples of CBE programs such as the University of Wisconsin Flexible Option, and highlights various regulatory challenges facing CBE.

Combining Good Educational Models with Good Business Models for CBE Programs highlights the need for institutions to consider how their institutional business model will need to adapt in order to support alternative education models such as CBE.

Additional Resources:

CBE Resources Database – This database provides a curated list of CBE-related materials by topic.

Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) –  C-BEN is a group of colleges and universities working together to address shared challenges to designing, developing and scaling competency-based degree programs. Their website has numerous useful resources on CBE.