How Competency-Based Education Gets Results for Learners and Employers


Posted In: Workforce Insight

Jan • 12 • 2017


Competency-based education has long been seen as an innovation that could produce better learning outcomes. But connecting those outcomes directly to workplace skills and career development is comparatively new, and evidence that competency-based degrees have an impact for working adults and their employers is just emerging.


College for America (CfA), with the support of a research grant from the Walmart Foundation, has been evaluating the outcomes of its competency-based programs, and promising early data is beginning to be shared in a new Impact Research center. For example, recent surveys of employer partners and students show that:


  • 100% of employers believe they are as likely or more likely to retain employees who have been College for America students, as compared with employees not enrolled in College for America.
  • 43% of employers say those students are promoted more often.
  • 86% of students believe their College for America degree program helps in their current job.
  • 20% of students report a recent increase in pay tied to a new position or promotion.


This new data fits a growing body of evidence about how investing in employee education can translate to benefits for both learners and employers. Earlier research by Accenture and Cigna demonstrated an ROI of $1.29 for every $1 Cigna spent on its employee reimbursement program.

Clear Progress and Continual Improvement

What is producing these encouraging results? Jerry Rekart, senior director of research and analytics at College for America, is charged with using data to understand what’s working in the program and what isn’t (yet).


In his view, competency-based education provides unique opportunities for research on learning, because it allows a more granular look at the student experience, revealing more about how people learn and opening up opportunities for continual improvement.


The competency-based education model used by College for America has binary assessments: “A competency is either mastered or not mastered,” Rekart explains. “A core component of our model is the power of the ‘not yet.’ For us to say you’ve demonstrated a competency doesn’t mean that a student is 80 percent of the way there or even 90 percent. It really means a student is 100 percent of the way there.”


This structure means Rekart and his team can track how long it takes students to finish projects, and the number of resubmissions required, in order to understand how students are learning. “The challenge and the struggle around grappling with the concept is where deep learning actually takes place,” says Rekart. The data is too early to report, he adds, but “we are seeing the biggest impacts in improvement in communication skills — both oral and written.”


These detailed insights into student performance can enable curriculum designers to consider ongoing improvements such as reordering projects or revising elements to foster even greater success.


More on this topic: 3 Ways to Encourage Your Employees to Earn a College Degree

Motivated Learners

Rekart also runs analyses to determine the key predictors of success within the model. The goal is to look at students when they enter College for America and to design tailored services or interventions to help them be as successful as possible along the way.


Non-cognitive skills, in particular, are emerging as a critical factor, Rekart says. “Something that may not be appreciated is an incredible amount of motivation, initiative, and self-direction needed to progress through the program,” he explains.


“Those are all characteristics any employer would want to identify, and I can’t think of any reason why they wouldn’t translate directly to the workplace.”


Putting competency-based learning to work

Data also is used to evaluate the learning outcomes of the College for America programs. College for America has compared sample sets of students against traditional students on standardized academic assessments. By most metrics students in the competency-based model meet or exceed the performance of students in traditional models.


In an assessment of foundational skills developed by the Educational Testing Service for students from two-year colleges, CfA’s associate’s degree students placed at the 67th percentile overall and scored particularly high for reading, the natural sciences, and critical thinking.


This analysis is supplemented by studies about how the program impacts student success at work. In surveys, students report problem-solving skills and an improved ability to contribute to the success of a team. “It’s very seldom that something learned in a traditional 12 week course could directly impact what a student does in his or her place of business,” Rekart says.


Yvonne Simon, chief learning architect for College for America, gets to see that impact directly. She recalls a student whose manager asked her to negotiate a tense and complex situation at work. The student had just completed a project on negotiating in difficult circumstances, so she had a clear roadmap for how to proceed.


The student set up a meeting between the involved parties exactly as she had done in her project. She was confident, she felt equipped, she went through all the steps, and she was thrilled with the results.


“They actually reached a resolution,” Simon says. “She got a note from her boss that said ‘Congratulations, I’m so proud you did this.’”


Emma Gallimore is a freelance writer with a degree in journalism from the University of Maine. She reports on trends affecting the education, business, health and technology sectors.