College for America Blog

What is Competency-Based Education?


Posted In: Workforce Insight

Nov • 30 • 2016

In conversations about how to close skills gaps among their employees, learning and development leaders at large corporations may increasingly hear about the possibilities of competency-based education (or CBE).

CBE is, as its name suggests, learning based on developing and demonstrating competence. While the details of individual CBE programs differ, all have one thing in common: prioritizing what a student can do over how much time they put in.

This is a major shift from traditional degrees and credentials, which mostly rely on time-based measurements like credit hours, courses, and semesters. But a growing number of universities are adapting existing degree programs to the CBE model or building original CBE degree programs from the ground up. Training and development providers could be following suit as well.

If you are on the leadership team of your organization’s L&D or human resources and have been reviewing different learning solutions for your employees, you may want to better understand the basics of this learning innovation.

Measuring Time vs. Measuring Learning

CBE has emerged because educators and employers are looking for innovations that improve on what has been a “black box” system. Traditionally, time-in-seat has been presumed to get learning results, so, starting from that basis, universities could say that so many hours equals a course, and so many courses equals a degree. Students and employers understood that degrees generally added up to comparable bodies of knowledge, but a degree didn’t clearly signal what a graduate was able to do.

Increasingly, though, employers want more clarity about the outputs of higher education and more clarity about what skills and knowledge a degree represents.

CBE is essentially an innovation that changes the rules to measure units of learning rather than measure units of seat time. It turns the black box into something transparent so stakeholders know what a student has learned and can do.

As Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University, often puts it, “In most higher education, time is the constant and learning is the variable. In competency-based education, learning is the constant, and time is the variable.”

Transitioning from the traditional model isn’t easy, but colleges and universities have been supported in recent years by The Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), a 20-member consortium that Southern New Hampshire University hosted in its first year. C-BEN defines competency-based education as an academic model in which the time a student takes to demonstrate competency is flexible while the expectations about learning are constant.

Competencies, Not Skills

What is a competency, exactly? It is the capacity to apply skills, knowledge, or abilities to a real-world situation. It’s more than theoretical knowledge, a learning outcome, or a skill by itself. If a competency is mastered, it means the student has a knowledge or skill and that they have demonstrated they know to use it — often in a real-world context.

It may help to think of a competency as a can-do statement. For example, some of the competencies in College for America degree programs include:

In most CBE programs, students must master a series of competencies like these examples to pass a course.  College for America, however, does away with the course structure entirely.

Instead, students complete online projects that will demonstrate mastery of the necessary competencies. These projects range from writing papers that demonstrate research and analysis to working through simulations of real-world, career-based problems that allow students to practice the application of skills and knowledge.

For example, consider another competency required for CfA’s Bachelor of Arts in Management: demonstrate an understanding of the risks and benefits of international transactions. To achieve that, students must prepare a report and series of presentations to help a fictional company expand international sales.

CfA eliminated the concept of the “course” because, like the credit hour, the course is a time-based container for learning that doesn’t account for the needs of working adult students.

“For us, we really wanted to break away from the course as a defining unit,” said Kazin, at the Assessing Direct Assessment master class at the New England Board of Higher Education’s CBE Conference. “If you get serious about competency-based education, what you’re really saying is ‘I’m agnostic as to how students develop competencies but we care very much about how they demonstrate what they know.’”

Using CBE to Upskill the Workforce

In an essay on The Huffington Post, Julian L. Alssid, chief workforce strategist at CfA, pointed out that businesses are showing growing interest in CBE programs to educate workers. “As employers become aware of CBE’s positive bottom-line impact,” he wrote, “they are increasingly becoming advocates.”

Perhaps most important, CBE clarifies the signal that a degree sends. “We’re not graduating somebody who can’t do what we claim,” LeBlanc said in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It’s this confidence in the outcomes that’s leading employers to partner with CBE providers to upskill their workforces, according to Michelle R. Weise, executive director of Southern New Hampshire University’s Sandbox Collaborative and co-author of The Clayton Christensen Institute ebook, Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution. She feels CBE is gaining traction precisely because employers are pleased with the results they see in employees who’ve been through such programs.

Among the reasons employers and working adults are gravitating toward CBE:

  • It’s more strategic. Graduates of CBE programs are able to apply what they’ve learned in their degree programs immediately, saving on recruitment and replacement costs.
  • It’s more aligned. Talent and workforce professionals think in terms of competencies, so CBE creates a common language between educators and the workplace.
  • It’s efficient. Students in CBE programs spend more time on the material they need help with and less time on material they are already strong in.
  • The curriculum is learner-centered. A competency focus helps learners understand how content is will apply in the workplace and over the arc of a career.
  • It can cost less. The online format and new business models create opportunities for lower tuition.

“It’s going to be an exciting time for employers because they will have a little more ownership in building learning pathways for students,” Wiese said in a 2014 interview about that report. “They’ll be building a pipeline of students who they know will be able to fill positions within their company.”

A.J. O’Connell is a freelance journalist specializing in education reporting and a former college journalism teacher.