Competency-Based Education in Higher Education

On October 9, the College and Career Readiness and Success Center hosted the webinar, “Competency-Based Education in Higher Education.” This webinar concluded a three-part series on competency-based education (CBE), which first examined K-12 state policy implications followed by district promising practices and considerations. This final installation explored how educators and policymakers in K-12 and higher education are seeking to better personalize instruction and allow students to demonstrate their knowledge acquisition. In this webinar, Becky Klein-Collins, Director of Research for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning; Dr. Sandy Cook, System Director; and Dr. Bill Ryan, Executive Director of Learn on Demand through the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS); and Dr. Sally Johnstone, Vice President for Academic Advancement at Western Governors University (WGU) discussed the implementation of CBE in two- and four-year colleges in the United States and shared important considerations for policy and practice. 

Klein began the discussion by describing the issues institutes of higher education (IHE) face. She explained that employers find that recent graduates are not equipped with desired content-specific and “soft skills” to be ready for the workplace and students are questioning if the quality of a college education is worth the increasing cost. In response to this, she stated that some IHEs are adapting to more efficiently and economically prepare an increasingly diverse student body with the skills to be successful in the work force.  Although there is no single approach to CBE degree models, Klein did mention that there are both unifying concepts (e.g. competencies that require students to both acquire and apply knowledge, defining concepts that are required for a degree and assessments that validate the learning) and variation in models as well (e.g. ties to the credit hour, types of learning activities, roles of faculty). She also acknowledged some of the challenges and considerations when implementing these programs, both moving forward and at present, and the value and types of prior learning assessments for awarding students college credits for previous skills and knowledge gained.  

There have been a number of IHEs that have been implementing CBE programs already, three of which were highlighted in the presentation. Dr. Ryan began by sharing the Learn on Demand online degree and certification program at KCTCS, which prides itself on flexibility. Students can start modularized courses at any time; receive credit for past learning; and the program provides competency education, online resources, and virtual and local student supports and services. Also, through the KCTCS is the Direct2Degree program. Dr. Cook described this program as specifically focused on allowing students to receive an Associate degree in two years or less and providing a financial aid program that incentivizes students to make quick progress through a sequence of courses by aligning itself with monthly tuition payments. Lastly, Dr. Johnstone shared information about WGU, which offers competency-based Baccalaureate and Masters degrees and certifications. She specifically addressed their competency model, which begins with industry professionals and external academics developing competencies for degree programs; then internal experts produce topics spread across programs; followed by the development of course level activities, learning objectives, and various assessments; and finally the program is released to students. Like the other CBE programs, WGU also allows students to begin at any time, progress at their own rate, and provides students with mentors and other supports.

Although these CBE programs have been able to address many of the needs of their diverse student bodies, there have also been some challenges with implementing these programs. Foremost among these challenges is financial aid. Financial aid awarding has not historically favored CBE delivery models, and often it is unclear which programs will receive it. Some of the other challenges discussed by Dr. Ryan included initial difficulties in marketing the programs and effectively explaining CBE in order to get it into local pipelines, providing wrap-around services and developmental education, and course development taking longer than anticipated (2-3 years). Despite these challenges, implementing CBE programs in IHE appears to be optimizing learning time and providing personalized instruction that can more accurately measure students’ knowledge.


Patrice Fabel is a research assistant with the College and Career Readiness and Success Center.

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