AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — For decades, advocates of competency-based education have been arguing that colleges should award credits based on assessing what students know rather than how many hours they’ve spent in class. Yet despite getting some buzz every few years, the idea of CBE, as it’s called, has remained a relatively small-scale phenomenon.
Could this post-pandemic moment lead to broader adoption of the idea? After all, there’s growing interest among employers on using “skills-based hiring”—meaning looking for proof of certain skills rather than requiring a college degree. And colleges seem more open to trying new approaches as overall enrollment falls and skepticism of higher education is on the rise.
Last week a group promoting CBE, the nonprofit Competency-Based Education Network, released a new report that it hopes can be a roadmap for making a coordinated push to grow adoption and acceptance of the education model.
The report is pretty brief—a little over 20 pages—laying out five design principles for colleges and other educational institutions that want to try CBE:
- Explain what competencies any course or program offers.
- Promote equity in education and hiring by shifting emphasis from the reputation of a program to what students can prove they can do.
- Try to use CBE to bridge the “skills gap” between what employers say they need and what schools and colleges teach.
- Look for achievable steps that point toward large-scale change to a competency-based system.
- Help various sectors—K-12, higher education, employers, communities, government and industry—work together in making the shift.
The glossy document was released here at the Competency-Based Education Network’s annual conference, where it was handed out to attendees and informed the themes of many sessions. As a sign of momentum in the space, the group pointed out that in the five years since it formally became a nonprofit, membership has grown from around 30 institutions to more than 600.
But that still leaves thousands of colleges with no competency-based program.
Hype and Reality
The conference attempted to channel the energy and pep of a sporting event to boost participants in their efforts to run or start CBE programs, which go against the norms of typical campus cultures. Participants entered the main ballroom at the start of the event through an inflated archway, as if they were professional football players entering a stadium for the big game, to the cheers of conference organizers. The group’s president, Charla Long, who earlier in her career worked in management at Disney, has become known for bringing over-the-top props and themes to the conference. This year, a square of AstroTurf with field markings was laid out in the center of the room in front of the main stage, speakers sat on bleachers with cardboard cutouts of fans behind them, and the leaders of the event wore football jerseys.
But organizers and attendees were also blunt at times about the challenges they face.
For one thing, moving to competency-based education requires changes across many areas of a campus, from the way professors teach to the way the registrar awards credit.
“Everything has to be modified, so you’ve gotta be prepared to really sort of dismantle your institution and then build it from the ground up,” said Yvonne Villanueva-Russell, dean of the College of Innovation and Design at Texas A&M University-Commerce, in an interview. “To do competency-based education means unlearning the paradigms of education for faculty, the way they teach students, the way [students] learn. And for the back-office processes of financial aid, enrollment, admission, tuition [and] assessment, everything has to be modified.”
She runs five competency-based degree programs, including a bachelor’s degree in general studies, serving close to 1,000 students, and she says they’re going well. And she and her colleagues have hosted officials from many other colleges interested in trying to copy their model. But none of those visitors have been able to get a CBE program going at their own institutions, she said, because the way all those departments operate at each campus is so different, and all of them need to be convinced to change. “My advice for other schools is, be prepared to really create a parallel institution within your institution,” she said.
“We’re almost 10 years into it, and almost every day [we have] the registrar saying, ‘I’ve never seen this before. We just broke the system. What do we do?’,” she added, giving the example of how to handle revising a financial-aid reward if, say, a student is switching from a traditional program to a competency-based one mid-year. “We’re continually revising policy. We’re continually creating a new way of doing things and creating a patch in the existing system.”
And faculty are not always sold. At the Air Force Institute of Technology, for instance, when some courses shifted to a CBE model, some instructors chose not to stick around to make the change. “We’ve lost a few professors,” said Brian Fitch, who works in the department of business operations at the institute. “Professors like to stand on the podium and teach,” he added, and in the CBE model instructors serve more as a coach and resource. But instructors who stay often end up liking the model better, he added.
Even the language of the approach can be off-putting to the uninitiated.
“Competency-based education is a tongue-twister and doesn’t always resonate,” said Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of the nonprofit Complete College America, during one session. She advised colleges to “use very simple language that resonates with the lay public,” when marketing a CBE program, since students might not understand how it works: “Focus on, ‘How will it make their life better and help them earn more money and have success?’”
One big change that CBE leaders are heartened by, and are trying to encourage more of, are statewide CBE efforts that are trying to support the model at a number of colleges or schools.
“What’s different about this time is more system-level conversations,” said Amber Garrison Duncan, executive vice president of the Competency-Based Education Network, in an interview with EdSurge.
She pointed to an effort in Alabama that is building a statewide framework to help CBE programs thrive by defining skills and matching educational opportunities to what employers are looking for. Illinois, meanwhile, is setting up a statewide CBE effort to train early-childhood educators.
To state leaders and other policymakers, she said, there’s a feeling that if public money is supporting education, “it better lead somewhere,” adding, “We can’t just say it’s OK to give access to education to people, and then they have a road to nowhere or a dead end.”
Questions have been raised about some forms of competency-based education.
In 2017, a federal audit found that Western Governors University’s CBE program lacked faculty interaction, and classified it as a correspondence program rather than an online program. Because of that ruling, the audit recommended that the institution return $700 million in financial aid to the government. Two years later, the Trump Administration rejected those findings and dropped the request for payback, but the incident has made some college administrators wary of CBE.
The new report by the Competency-Based Education Network devotes a section to the importance of quality assurance in the creation of competency-based programs, and urges accreditors to develop standards that understand the unique features of these programs.
Meanwhile, competency-based programs have attracted fans among some college students—particularly adults. The 2020 National Survey of Postsecondary Competency Based Education from the American Institutes for Research suggested that CBE programs enroll more people who are age 25 or older and more people who previously earned college credit than do traditional college programs.
These returning adult college students say they find competency-based programs just what they need to finish a college degree in a way that recognizes that they’ve already picked up plenty of knowledge and skills in the workplace. That was the case for Gina Petersen, a student EdSurge interviewed in our Second Acts podcast series, as she completed a competency-based program at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Colleges hesitant to embrace CBE might take particular interest in one of Petersen’s insights. At some points during her studies, she wondered whether the CBE approach could one day make it possible for students to just prove their skills with standardized tests—essentially allowing them to skip college altogether.