Investing in Quality Competency-Based Education

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Key Takeaways

  • Investments in competency-based education programs make sense as our nation strives to educate an increasingly diverse population.
  • Key indicators of quality for all stakeholders in CBE ecosystems are curricular architecture, valid and reliable assessments, and comprehensive student success resources.
  • CBE programs require substantial investments and often commitments to new or redefined business models.

Deb Bushway is chief academic officer and vice president of Academic Innovation at Capella University. Deborah Everhart is director of Solutions Strategy for Blackboard.

Investments in competency-based education (CBE) programs make sense as our nation strives to educate an increasingly diverse population. Today, approximately 85 percent of U.S. higher education students are post-traditional1; that is, they are not 18–22 year olds attending full time, living on campus, supported by their parents. Students seek education at all stages in their lives, and the need for access to higher education is greater than ever because increasingly jobs require postsecondary education.2 But it's not just about attaining jobs — it's the new normal of evolving careers and the need for lifelong learning. Today's learners need ways to build skills and work toward credentials at any time, at any age, and apply them to an ever-changing landscape of personal goals.3

CBE programs enable students to earn credentials by demonstrating their "competencies" (defined as a balanced blend of knowledge, skills, and abilities) without the traditional confines of credit hours (and required seat time). Approaches to CBE are diverse and continue to evolve through initiatives defining effective models.4 With hundreds of programs in development, now is a critical time to consider what constitutes quality in CBE and why quality is worth the investment.

Traditional courses, credits, and credentials are already well-understood "currency" in our educational ecosystems, but how can credentials earned through competency mastery become recognized as valuable and portable currency, particularly in the context of lifelong learning and employment? What types of investments in quality build dimensions of value and trust among interdependent stakeholders in our ecosystems: academic leaders, faculty, students, and employers?

Our nation's educational attainment goals necessitate the provision of an array of high-quality higher education options. The quality question is not which delivery model is "best," whether traditional or nontraditional, but rather, how well does a delivery model provide value for a certain student constituency? CBE suits post-traditional learners particularly well. Therefore it is important to consider what constitutes quality within the delivery models of CBE programs rather than comparing CBE to more traditional programs. While approaches to CBE legitimately vary based on the mission and goals of different educational institutions, some common investments in quality apply across CBE models. Curricular architecture, valid and reliable assessments, and comprehensive student success resources are key indicators of quality for all stakeholders in CBE ecosystems.

Curricular Architecture

Quality CBE programs clearly define what constitutes a credential, as well as the corresponding transparent articulation of a competency framework supporting that credential.5 Clarity and transparency enable academic leaders, faculty, students, and employers to understand what a competency-based credential represents and how it helps them achieve their goals.

Credential Definition

Conferral of competency-based credentials depends on demonstration of defined sets of competencies rather than accumulation of credits. Learning outcomes (or competencies) have typically taken a back seat to courses and credits when defining credential requirements. In CBE programs, this is reversed: learning outcomes and demonstration of competencies become the drivers for credentials. Therefore a well-defined competency framework is critical for representing the coherent architecture of a CBE credential.

Today, competency-based programs also use credit hours, and many programs map to a recognized number of credits (e.g., 120 semester credits for an undergraduate credential). Even credentials earned through the "direct assessment" language in the U.S. federal financial aid guidelines must establish learning outcomes that demonstrate "equivalency" back to the credit hour standard.6

Equivalency, at least for the time being, helps us define the value of competency-based credentials and ensure that they operate in our educational ecosystems. As Klein-Collins argues,7 competency-based programs can increase the efficiency, effectiveness, and fairness of our credential systems, but in the absence of shared competency and credential definitions across institutions, issues of transfer and equivalence arise. Soares8 and Laitinen9 both argue for federal support to create shared definitions of credentials, perhaps rooted in the Lumina Degree Qualifications Profile or the work of LEAP. In the meantime, however, CBE programs need to define credit hour equivalencies in their credentials. Until competencies are more standardized and portable, CBE programs require "crosswalks" between competencies and credit hour definitions, which support students' needs for employer reimbursement, transfer among institutions, and admission to other academic programs. These crosswalks contribute to the transparency of CBE programs and make their learning outcomes more interoperable among stakeholders.

Competency Framework

A well-defined competency framework is the bedrock of a competency-based academic program and guides the development of the curriculum. This framework, combined with a clear credential definition, creates a curricular architecture, ensuring that the learning demonstrated in competency-based programs represents the entire "form" or Gestalt of a credential — an integration of theory and practice at an appropriate level for the credential conferred.

Such competency frameworks clearly state what a person will be able to do on completing the credential, thus allowing students, employers, and other stakeholders to set their expectations appropriately. A competency framework must be rooted in accepted standards at the credential level as well as within the profession or discipline to which it applies. Competency-based curricular development begins by identifying existing relevant, agreed-upon standards for the credential level, the discipline, the profession, and the needs of relevant employers. Faculty and curriculum development teams synthesize these standards into clear, measureable competencies at the academic program level. From these competencies, a framework of sub-competencies, criteria, and assessments are developed. This framework is segmented into groupings or clusters of competencies (which go by a variety of names, including "courses" or "modules"). A student moves through a clear set of assessments to demonstrate each competency. Often curricular maps are created and publicly displayed in order to orient/support students and communicate to external constituents what competencies a successful student will demonstrate upon completion of a credential.

In CBE programs that have a clear, well-defined curricular architecture,

  • Academic leaders understand how the credential fits into the institution's mission and goals.
  • Faculty understand how to define and deliver the curriculum as well as how to assess demonstration of competency to achieve the defined learning outcomes.
  • Students understand the whole framework of competencies as well as the individual competencies and what they will learn as part of earning the credential.
  • Employers understand the competencies and holistic body of knowledge achieved by graduates in the program.

Valid and Reliable Assessments

Well-established, robust, reliable, and valid methods of assessing a learner's demonstration of competency is another quality lynchpin in CBE. Academic leaders, faculty, students, and employers all need to have confidence in competency assessments — that they are reliable and appropriate to stakeholders' goals. These assessments must be deeply aligned to the competencies and designed to clearly assess students' abilities to perform the relevant intellectual and behavioral tasks. Three key models of assessment, each with relative strengths and weaknesses, are common in competency-based program delivery: standardized, objective exams; traditional assignments; and authentic assessments.

Standardized, Objective Exams

CBE exams rely on traditional psychometric principles involving content sampling, item validation, and item security practices to produce valid (able to measure that which they purport to measure) and reliable (able to measure that thing consistently across people, settings, and assessors) assessments of competency. Objective exams have a number of important strengths, including the potential for strong psychometric data to support their validity and reliability, and easy comparability across settings and institutions.

The weaknesses associated with objective exams generally concern their usefulness for learning and their relevance to demonstrating competencies. Often, these exams are a high-stakes opportunity to demonstrate what one knows, and there is little or no transparency about the student's relative strengths or weaknesses within the content area. Objective exams generally cannot be transparent because exam items are carefully guarded to maintain integrity.

Traditional Assignments

Assignments generally include writing papers, developing summaries, and accomplishing tasks such as library research or content review. These assignments, when used in a competency-based program, generally have set rubrics that align with defined competencies.

Traditional assignments are familiar to most people, and most people understand (and thus trust) how an expert assessor can determine whether or not assignments can demonstrate a competency. Assignments' primary weakness, like objective exams, pertains to relevance. The ability to perform on an exam or assignment does not necessarily equate to demonstrating a competency.

Authentic Assessment

In this approach assessment of the competency approximates demonstration of the competency in the real world — workplace or community — requiring a work product very similar to the type of work product an employer would expect. For example, in an authentic assessment a student would be asked to analyze a balance sheet rather than answering a set of questions about components of balance sheets. Authentic assessments embedded in the learning process can be scaffolded into increasingly complex levels of competency, with well-defined, transparent expectations articulated for the learner and the assessor. An important component in authentic assessment is the consistent use by the assessors of a standard rubric. This practice allows all stakeholders (students, faculty, employers, other institutions of higher education, funders, and regulators) to genuinely know what competencies the learners have gained in the learning experience. The strengths of authentic assessment include clear relevance to stakeholders, transparency for students, and greater validity and reliability over other assessment methods.10

Authentic assessment has some risks, and it requires significant investment. It is challenging and time-consuming to create meaningful and relevant assessments that are "right-sized" to the learning experience. Care must be taken to ensure coverage of the required knowledge as well as the skills. Additionally, assessor training is essential, since the rigorous and consistent application of rubrics is fundamental to this approach.

In competency-based programs that have valid, reliable assessments,

  • Academic leaders understand the rigor of student performance represented by the credential.
  • Faculty understand how to define, deliver, and judge performance on assessments to achieve the defined learning outcomes.
  • Students understand how they will be assessed and what type of feedback they will receive.
  • Employers have confidence that graduates have demonstrated defined competencies.

Comprehensive Student Success Resources

Subject-matter guidance and comprehensive, just-in-time, personalized support are essential to students in competency-based programs. Because CBE does not rely on time structures and deadlines, students have much more flexibility but also require other types of structures to scaffold their learning experiences. CBE requires investments in new and/or redefined roles to help students succeed along their individualized learning pathways.


Faculty are central to learning and assessment in CBE programs. The expertise faculty bring from their disciplines and professions is invaluable to students, and most CBE programs are designed to allow faculty to apply their skills in ways that bring the highest value to students and improve satisfaction in the learning experience for both faculty and students. Different institutions define the role of faculty in CBE programs differently, but there are two consistent trends:

  • The faculty role is unbundled. In other words, faculty are generally not the sole source of an integrated sequence of curriculum development, assessment design, content aggregation, course and content delivery, tutoring, assessing, and advising/coaching, as is common in traditional programs.
  • Faculty are essential in defining competencies — integrating input from employers, professional and disciplinary organizations, and best practices — and the design/development/oversight of assessment methodologies.

Faculty feedback to students regarding their progress toward demonstration of competencies is also a mainstay in high-quality competency-based programs.


In self-paced competency models, an institutional "touchstone" becomes essential for student success. High-quality programs provide a guide for the student, often referred to as a coach. A coach is often assigned to the student at entry and stays with the student throughout progress toward a credential.


As students move through the content of a CBE program, construct their demonstrations of competency to authentic assessments, and receive faculty feedback regarding their performance, they often need additional subject matter support. Tutors serve this role, either for the specific competency/subject with which the learner is working or for broad, cross-cutting competencies such as critical writing.

360 Student Support

Competency-based programs often offer a range of student support options on a 24/7 basis. 360 support serves the student as a whole person, typically including technical support but also other types of support, such as financial aid guidance, help finding "life services" (e.g., child care and transportation), and credential and career planning.11 If institutions do not invest in these types of services, post-traditional students are less likely to succeed and be able to apply their CBE credentials to their lifelong learning and career goals.

In competency-based programs that have comprehensive student success resources,

  • Academic leaders have confidence in the support structures in place for student retention and success.
  • Faculty understand their role and their collaboration with others to help students achieve the defined learning outcomes.
  • Students have the support they need for different aspects of their educational experience.
  • Employers have confidence that expert guidance and feedback have provided appropriate structure for graduates' learning accomplishments.

Quality and Opportunity

CBE programs require substantial investments and often new and/or redefined business models. Curricular architecture, valid assessments, and appropriate student supports for CBE, when done well, necessitate significant commitments in human resources and strong leadership as well as monetary investments. In order to produce well-qualified graduates who can demonstrate competencies that are relevant and valid, academic leaders need to consider the needs of the interrelated stakeholders in the ecosystems served by these programs. In-depth analysis of stakeholders' needs and a focus on learning outcomes provide opportunities for rethinking the goals of academic programs and how best to serve increasingly diverse student constituencies. The resulting CBE approaches will vary, but key quality considerations provide a common ground for improving educational opportunities.

  1. Louis Soares, Post-traditional Learners and the Transformation of Postsecondary Education: A Manifesto for College Leaders, 2013.
  2. Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl, Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020, 2013.
  3. Portions of this article are adapted from Deborah Everhart's Blackboard blog series on competency-based learning [].
  4. In particular, see CBE Jumpstart, administered by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), the EDUCAUSE Next Generation Learning Challenges Breakthrough Models Incubator, and the Competency-Based Education Network.
  5. For context, see Elizabeth A. Jones, Richard Voorhees, and Karen Paulson, Defining and Assessing Learning: Exploring Competency-Based Initiatives (2001); Rebecca Klein-Collins, Competency-Based Degree Programs in the U.S. (2012); Amy Laitinen, Cracking the Credit Hour (2012); Jim Schilling and Randall Koetting, Underpinnings of Competency-based Education, 2010; and Richard Voorhees, Competency-Based Learning Models: A Necessary Future, 2001.
  6. U.S. Department of Education, "Applying for Title IV Eligibility for Direct Assessment (Competency-Based) Programs."
  7. Rebecca Klein-Collins, Competency-Based Degree Programs in the U.S., 2012.
  8. Louis Soares, A "Disruptive" Look at Competency-Based Education, 2012.
  9. Laitinen, Cracking the Credit Hour.
  10. Klein-Collins, Competency-Based Degree Programs in the U.S..
  11. For this and other definitions, see Deborah Everhart, Cathy Sandeen, Deborah Seymour, and Karen Yoshino, Clarifying Competency-based Education Terms: A Lexicon, 2014.