The Current State of Competency-Based Education in the US

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Recently, I had the privilege to sit in on a press release of the very preliminary findings from a joint Eduventures/Ellucian survey reporting on institutions’ level of commitment to competency-based education (CBE). The full report on the survey will not be released until June, and in fact the survey is still open. But as of late April, 261 institutions have responded, representing a diversity of Carnegie classifications and institutional types, and some of the findings are illuminating.

The findings listed below were shared with me by Richard Garrett, Chief Research Officer at Eduventures, and Carie Ann Potenza, Director of Academic and Grant Services, Teach and Learning, Ellucian. I have also asked several leaders of innovative CBE programs (who will also be speaking at our upcoming conference Developing and Managing Competency-Based Education) to comment on the initial findings, and their comments are also below.

Findings: Everyone is Interested in CBE, Few are Scaling It

First, some quick demographics. Of the 261 early respondents:

  • 51% were public institutions, 42% were private, and 7% were for-profit colleges.
  • 71% were four-year institutions, and 29% were two-year colleges.
  • Among the four-year institutions, 23% were doctoral degree-granting institutions, 48% were master’s, and 24% were baccalaureate.
  • Respondents included leading CBE schools as well as schools new to CBE, and included presidents, provosts, vice presidents, and deans.

These are preliminary findings only, and the survey’s administrators haven’t yet segmented the data to learn more. However, Richard Garrett has noted that preliminary segmenting by Carnegie classification has revealed very little variance in response across types of institutions.

FINDING 1: Lack of interest in CBE is not an obstacle to adopting it.

90% of institutions responding are interested in some element of CBE, and only 10% of the 261 schools are not interested.


When asked what drove their interest in CBE:

  • 71% of colleges said they hoped it would expand opportunities for non-traditional students.
  • 55% hope it will improve learning outcomes and completion rates.
  • 54% want to better respond to workforce needs.
  • 41% want to enhance student employability.
  • 38% want to decrease tuition for non-traditional students.
  • 21% want to decrease tuition for all students.

FINDING 3: There is a lot of interest in CBE, but little scaled activity.

Among these 261 institutions:

  • 36% are scaling competency-based learning outcomes across the institution, and another 22% are interested in doing so. (By comparison, 18% have scaled across one department, 18% are interested in scaling across one department, and 6% are not interested at all.)
  • 15% are scaling direct assessment/credit mapping institution-wide, and another 28% are interested in doing so.
  • 11% are scaling prior learning assessment, and 25% are interested.
  • 10% are scaling co-development of degrees with employers across the curriculum, and 24% are interested.
  • 4% are scaling self-paced study across the curriculum, and 20% are interested.
  • 3% are scaling adaptive learning institution-wide, and 28% are interested.

FINDING 4: Most institutions are in the planning stage.

The survey asked about the scale to which the institutions responding have adopted CBE, as of April 2016:

  • 4% have adopted CBE across the entire institution.
  • 4% have adopted 5+ CBE programs.
  • 6% have adopted 2-5 CBE programs.
  • Another 6% have adopted one CBE program.
  • 16% have integrated CBE courses into multiple departments.
  • 6% have integrated CBE courses into one academic department.
  • 3% have piloted one CBE course.
  • 53% are in the planning stages (which could mean a variety of things) and haven’t yet piloted or implemented CBE.
  • 4% say they have no interest.

Garrett comments, “CBE is resonating with colleges. Colleges get it. But people are still in the planning stages, trying to figure out what this means for their institutions. These are early days.”

FINDING 5: What difference will CBE make?

The survey asked institutions to compare faculty/staff workload, faculty/student interaction, and student outcomes between CBE and non-CBE programs. The findings:

  • Faculty/staff workload: 35% said “too soon to judge” or “it depends,” and 41% said “more workload” with CBE.
  • Faculty/student interaction: 48% said “too soon to judge” and 13% said “it depends.” 18% said “much better” or “somewhat better.”
  • Student outcomes: 57% said “it depends.” 16% said “much better” or “somewhat better.”

Garrett suggests that the increased faculty/staff workload is a positive finding: “It means people are approaching CBE with rigor.”

FINDING 6: The complexity of financial aid is the major barrier to adoption of CBE.

This one is unsurprising. Here are obstacles to CBE, by the numbers:

  • Financial aid complexity – 59% say this is a significant barrier.
  • Lack of resources – 56%.
  • Faculty skepticism – 50%.
  • Lack of expertise in CBE – 46%.
  • SIS a poor fit for CBE – 39%.
  • LMS a poor fit for CBE – 20%.
  • Little student demand – 20%.
  • Poor fit for many of our students – 17%.
  • Leadership skepticism – 17%.

Garrett remarks, “The transition to CBE is not like the transition to online learning was. CBE is not as simple as a delivery mode. CBE impacts the curriculum, it impacts teaching, it impacts assessment, it impacts faculty roles, and it impacts the student experience in ways that simply transitioning the learning mode from on the ground to online does not.”

Commentary on the Findings

I asked Richard Garrett at Eduventures and a number of leading adopters of CBE what they found surprising or exciting in the findings. Here’s what they said:

Richard Garrett, Eduventures. I expected more skepticism, more pushback. I was struck by the level of interest in CBE, given that these were senior leaders responding across a diversity of schools. This wasn’t a reactionary response. There is some real energy and agreement around CBE using a toolkit we can work with. They have a lot of questions about how to use the toolkit.

I also think the findings reveal that there is a danger in saying that CBE is “only this one thing,” that it’s only self-paced learning, for example. Everyone knows how Western Governors University does CBE, how College for America does it, but those models may not be the right fit for all institutions or for all learners. What we are learning in this survey is that CBE is enormously varied, and that if we are going to see CBE scaled across higher education, we need to see models across an axis from cohort, lock-step education to self-paced, not just on one end of that spectrum. Realizing and scaling up the potential of CBE means contending with complexity and enabling schools to make informed choices about what kind of CBE helps them.

What I see is a gap in professional development and networking for institutions that want to integrate CBE without committing to self-paced learning. We need a new language of CBE for those institutions, that speaks to their unique missions and who they are and what students they serve. Purdue and UT Austin provide fascinating models for applying CBE to the needs of more traditional students. Those are cohort-based rather than self-paced models, but are still very focused on mastery of competencies. What we need now is to broaden the conversation and for someone to convene communities of practice for the Purdues and the UT Austins. We need to discuss: What does that version of CBE look like?

Photo of Tiffany DentonTiffany Denton, Lipscomb University. These findings are indicative of a promising movement in higher education. It is true there are barriers (such as financial aid) that make adoption of CBE complex. However, the findings from this survey indicate that the interest, planning, and problem-solving is occurring across institutions to adopt a model of education that meets learner and employer needs in a meaningful way. That’s very promising.

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Eric Heiser, Salt Lake Community College. I have two comments. First, on scaling: We often caution institutions against being too aggressive in their implementation timelines. Having learned from our own experiences with our current Round IV TAACCT grant, we know that making sure you have the right staffing in place prior to any kind of rollout is crucial. Subject Matter Experts (faculty), instructional designers, and assessment designers all play key roles in ensuring that CBE courses and assessments are robust, reliable, and authentic. In addition, student services personnel from the registrar and advising offices, IT, and e-learning have all played key roles in the rollout at SLCC. It is critical that institutions considering CBE realize and plan for the strain that will be created on these areas and their respective budgets prior to moving into implementation.

On faculty load: SLCC is currently developing a brand new load model for faculty teaching in CBE.  The model was needed because teaching in a CBE environment is so different from any of the normal load considerations (lecture, lab, etc.). The model we are building will use contact hours in the lab/classroom as the basis for assigning load.  Faculty will be expected to be available, normally in the classroom or lab, for a set number of hours per week.  This will allow us to maintain our open classroom environment and schedule while also ensuring that a qualified faculty member is always available to assist students during our open lab hours (currently 8a-8p M-TH).  The load question is vitally important and will be one that most institutions will need to develop on their own, taking into account the specific needs of their particular institution.

KristinPhoto of Kristin Jones Jones, City University of Seattle. The data emerging shows great promise for continued growth with CBE! Many reputable institutions have seen great assurance in the use of CBE as a means to increase completion from non-traditional and underserved populations; highlighting these outcomes as they rise will be critical in the longevity of CBE. Critics often focus too much on the hype that CBE is “faster, cheaper.” We now have greater data supporting the benefit that CBE provides to learners who thrive with extended time and flexibility with learning. Provided that the focus remains on high-quality learning and on demonstration of that learning — rather than “faster, cheaper,” — I see significant value in CBE as a means to increase degree completion, particularly for students who might otherwise struggle to complete

Photo of James (Jim) SelbeJames (Jim) Selbe, formerly of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, now Principal at Selbe Consulting. What’s encouraging in these data is that institutions are considering and building CBE programs for the right reasons. While all the following would be great outcomes, they are also (in my opinion) the wrong reasons for developing CBE: doing it to build enrollment, or to accelerate completion, or to decrease institutional operating expenses. The right reasons are exactly the ones highlighted by institutions who responded to the survey.

As a nation, it is imperative that we engage more post-traditional students who need to further their education, we must improve graduate employability skills, and expand the base of our national workforce. The challenges reflected in the data are very real; yet institutions all over the country are creating work-arounds with assistance from organizations like the Competency-based Education Network (C-BEN). There is hope on the horizon.

Based on the work of the US Department of Education, we also have renewed optimism that much-needed flexibility in the federal financial aid program is coming. And, as technological interoperability standards become more defined and normalized, product development for this space should be accelerated. When these two barriers are overcome, the floodgates will open wider for competency-based education. The institutions that are currently planning and refining CBE programs are making wise investments.

Photo of Joellen ShendyJoellen Shendy, University of Maryland University College. I am heartily encouraged by the diversity in why people think CBE matters — and what types of goals they feel strongly that they can rally around. Particularly the high percentage of schools noting that they see CBE as a way to increase opportunity for non-traditional students. These students, who often have attended several institutions — collecting debt and using up a valuable resource, time — can get stuck in the failure paradigm of not having a completed credential. CBE, by being more transparent in demonstrating learning, has immense opportunity to break that paradigm and to help students who have not yet achieved the ultimate goal of a degree demonstrate that all learning matters, that there is value even if a student is not complete. The glass is half full, not wholly empty.

I find it interesting that so much discussion surrounding CBE centers on the self-paced opportunity for learning. Yet only 1 in 5 of the schools in this survey are looking to implement or scale self-paced study across the curriculum. That might imply that the regulatory confusion surrounding requirements like regular and substantive interaction remain a barrier to implementing a more “space and pace” free CBE model. It also shows that there is an understanding that CBE can apply across many types of institutions and learners – and I would expect us to see more hybrid type models where many of the foundational elements of CBE work alongside more traditional methods of learning.

Richard Garrett’s note is pivotal: By creating communities of practice, we need to start supporting schools that are exploring or implementing models of CBE in which self-paced learning is not foundational. I believe institutions should be able to take the very best parts of a CBE model that fit their own unique institutional mission and goals, without feeling like there is only one way to do things. CBE brings transparency and focus to what matters most: learning. That’s an outcome any institution can get behind!