Obstacles for Competency-Based Education Programs of the Future

Competency-based education is not a new idea; however, it has only recently grabbed widespread attention as a viable alternative to traditional education.  This model offers students an opportunity to earn a degree at their own pace, while effectively leveraging what they have learned in and out of the classroom.  As competency-based education has gained exposure, there has been no shortage of articles forecasting its transformative potential. Educators see competency-based education as a way to provide a personalized form of education, accompanied by a more transparent and meaningful credential.  Politicians and policymakers celebrate it as solution to both the student debt crisis and the achievement gap.  While competency-based education has made great strides towards earning acceptance on Capitol Hill and among institutions, its future is by no means secure.  Not only is the Carnegie Credit Hour still deeply entrenched in the way we think about higher education, but proponents of CBE face other cultural and regulatory challenges.  This article looks at three of the most pressing barriers that CBE advocates must overcome in the near future, if they hope to make this model a permanent fixture in the American higher education landscape.


Working Towards a Common Standard

At this point, less than half a dozen schools have received approval from both their accreditors and the Department of Education to offer a competency-based education (CBE) program.  Meanwhile, according to a recent Lumina Foundation survey, over 350 schools are either considering, or in the process of developing a CBE program.[1]  While this shows considerable enthusiasm in the field, it potentially gives rise to some serious issues.  With a few exceptions, schools are developing their programs in a vacuum, without a standard framework or nomenclature.  Competencies vary from school to school and frameworks range from a dozen competencies, to hundreds.  Schools also differ on the hierarchy of their competencies, constructing a variety of levels nested beneath one another.

This diversity of models is problematic for a number of reasons.  First, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, for students to transfer from one CBE program to another.  Studies show that nearly a third of all undergraduates in a traditional education model transfer schools before graduation.  The default solution has been to simply map all of the competencies back to the Carnegie Credit Hour.  However, the validity of such maps is dubious and the uniformity of their estimations is contradictory to the personalized nature of competency-based education.  Worst of all, it enthralls this new model to the credit hour and prevents us from eventually outgrowing its limitations.

Another issue arises when we are introducing competency-based education to the rest of the world.  For most students, parents, and employers, competency-based education is new and not easily understood.  Having 350 different explanations of competency based education will only prove to make this translation more difficult.  One of the purported benefits of CBE is that a competency-based transcript will be easier for employers to understand, and will more accurately reflect what students know and can do.  However, most employers spend just six seconds reviewing a resume.[2]  Will employers invest the resources to train their HR department on understanding 350 different versions of the same competencies?  Even if a school forms a direct workforce pathway for its CBE students, what happens when that student wants to move to another employer?  Without a uniform way of defining and communicating CBE, students are left trying to explain their seemingly bizarre new qualifications to future employers, or find themselves undeservingly eliminated from consideration.

While the above mentioned issues are concerning, there is some important work being done to resolve them.  The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) is developing a program called the Interstate Passport Initiative.  This program seeks to create a framework of transfer-level proficiency criteria, which will facilitate the mapping and transfer of student’s competencies across member schools. [3]   The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) is working on a similar effort that will integrate their VALUE rubrics to create a standardized set of criteria for general education requirements. [4]   We must continue to support these initiatives and others like them to ensure the sustainability of competency-based education.

The Difference between Education and Training

There is a longstanding belief among many Americans that there in stark division between what can be considered vocational training, and what is ‘true’ liberal education.  Vocational training is often seen as lacking in the same high-minded attributes such as critical thinking, information literacy, or civic engagement that a liberal education would provide.  It is believed that instead, training simply focuses on the discrete skills an employee must learn to perform in the workplace.  Harvard historian Hal Hansen traced these attitudes back to the passage of the Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act of 1917, which separated the oversight and funding for vocational programs from that of traditional colleges and universities.[5]  Many have compared CBE’s focus on observable behaviors to vocational training regimens. [6]   While these critiques may be based on a skewed or incomplete understanding of modern competency-based education, they have the potential to unfairly and permanently color the public perception of CBE.

To stymie the spread of these ideas, we can employ two strategies.  First, we must ensure that as we develop our CBE programs, we do not lose sight of the core values of a liberal education.  Competency frameworks designed specifically around employers’ needs that lack the integration of abilities such as critical thinking, decision making, and information literacy, invite the kinds of negative assessments noted earlier.  It is also important that we give students the opportunity to practice using their competencies in a variety of contexts.  This transference prevents atomization that can be common in vocational training and gives students a chance to think about how they are applying what they have learned.  The second strategy involves effectively communicating to our colleagues not only the benefits of a competency-based education, but also the speciousness of the division between training and education.  This is a fight that experiential learning supporters have been fighting for the past forty years.  We must add our voices to theirs and assert that simply because vocational training and liberal education have been divided in the past, there is no pedagogical reason why they need to be in the future.

Paying for Prior Learning Assessment

Exceptional learning experiences are meaningless if students cannot afford to participate in them, and the Department of Education’s (DOE) stance on providing aid for prior learning assessment is especially problematic for the emergence of a dynamic competency-based model.  According to the Department of Education, 86% of full-time undergraduate students at 4-year degree-granting institutions are receiving some form of financial aid.[7]  Unfortunately, 0% of undergraduate students are receiving any financial aid to cover the assessment of their prior learning.  While the department has shown some leniency recently with the authorization of the Experimental Sites Initiatives – which admittedly would provide some financial relief for students participating in CBE program – they have shown a fundamental misunderstanding of how prior learning and mastery-based assessment interact with one another.

The guidance documents the DOE has published are littered with phrases which suggest that Title IV aid cannot be used for prior learning assessment where the learning was not based on instruction provided during a particular payment period.[8]  Learning, however, is not limited to a specific payment period, and students in a competency-based program should be encouraged to integrate what they know, with what they are learning.  Indeed, one of the foundational principles of competency-based education is that it does not matter where or when you learned something, as long as you can demonstrate that you know it, that’s what counts.

Institutions are left with two options.  First, they can separate out the prior learning assessment process from the rest of the competency-based program – potentially in the form of an intake interview, or other diagnostic testing – and require students to pay for that on their own.  Alternatively, they can artificially delay students as they progress through competency-modules.  This creates the illusion that they have learned everything required during the appointed payment period.  Neither option, however, allows students to exercise the true potential of a CBE program.  The first unfairly burdens the student with the cost of assessing their prior learning, while the second bars students from advancing at their own pace.  If competency-based education is to become a true alternative to the traditional model, it needs to have an equitable financial aid infrastructure in place. The DOE has shown a willingness to listen to institutions engaged in this work.  It is up to CBE educators to lobby for the kind of backing that students need to participate effectively in these programs.

Competency-based education has the potential to radically transform higher education, and give millions of students the opportunity to positively change their lives.  However, the benefits are not clearly evident to all stakeholders, nor are the pathways to its ascendancy.  As a field we must continue to confront the challenges detailed above so that we don’t lose this opportunity to positively affect the future.


[1] Fain, P. (2014, July 23). Competency-based education gets a boost from the Education Department. Retrieved May 15, 2015, from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/07/23/competency-based-education-gets-boost-education-department

[2] Stenerson, K. (n.d.). Job Resume: How Long Do Recruiters Spend Looking At Your Career Summary? Retrieved May 15, 2015, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/23/resume-tips-for-post-50s_n_1372705.html?

[3] Interstate Passport Initiative. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2015, from http://www.wiche.edu/passport/learningOutcomesCriteria

[4] General Education Maps and Markers: Quality Assurance Group. (2014, August 6). Retrieved May 15, 2015, from https://www.aacu.org/gems/quality-assurance-group

[5] Hansen, H. (1999, April 22). Work, Schools, Educational Governance, and the State: German Vocationalism and the Recasting of American Educational History. Retrieved May 15, 2015, from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED433292.pdf

[6] Nelson, C. B. (2014, 2 December). What competency-based education cannot do: part I. Sign-Posts for Liberal Education. http://blogs.sjc.edu/christopher-nelson/2014/12/02/competency-based-education-cant-part/. Nelson, C. B. (2014, 4 December). What competency-based education cannot do: part II. Sign-Posts for Liberal Education. http://blogs.sjc.edu/christopher-nelson/2014/12/04/competency-based-learning-part-ii/

[7] Fast Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2015, from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=31

[8] IFAP – Federal Registers. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2015, from http://ifap.ed.gov/fregisters/FR11012006FinalRuleHERA.html Notice Inviting Postsecondary Educational Institutions To Participate in Experiments Under the Experimental Sites Initiative; Federal Student Financial Assistance Programs Under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as Amended. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2015, from https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2014/07/31/2014-18075/notice-inviting-postsecondary-educational-institutions-to-participate-in-experiments-under-the


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