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Trusteeship Magazine

Competency-Based Education: What the Board Needs to Know

By Rebecca Klein-Collins, Stanley O. Ikenberry, and George D. Kuh

Increasingly, higher education is moving away from “seat time”—students completing a stipulated number of courses and credit hours—toward an approach that focuses on what students actually know and can do with what they know.

Competency- based education may have an even bigger impact than online earning in continuing to broaden student access to a college degree.

The lesson for governing boards is that sound academic process alone is no longer sufficient to ensure quality or guide continuous improvement. Attention to learning outcomes is equally important.

The new landscape of higher education is marked by potentially disruptive developments surfacing almost daily: escalating college costs, unacceptably low degree-completion rates, and the advent of new technologies and competitive new providers, among others. Further fueling the disruption discourse is the uneasy sense that despite soaring college costs, the quality of student learning is falling well short of what the 21st century demands of our graduates and the needs of the economy and our democracy. Traditionally, a college degree has been considered in terms of “seat time”—students completing a stipulated number of courses and credit hours. Increasingly, that concept of higher education is being replaced by teaching and learning approaches that specify desired outcomes and focus squarely on evidence of student performance—what students actually know and can do with what they know.

One prominent model representing that shift is competency-based education (CBE), which some observers suggest might have an even bigger impact than online learning such as MOOCs (massive open online courses) in continuing to broaden access to a college degree. In March 2013, the U.S. Department of Education released a letter endorsing competency-based education, encouraging institutions to seek federal approval for programs that don’t rely on credit hours as a measure of learning. In December, the department invited institutions to submit ideas to test innovations like competency-based education in “experimental sites.” The field responded quickly.

Lumina Foundation is supporting two efforts: 1) the Competency-Based Ed Network (CBEN) coordinated by Public Agenda that will include up to 20 institutions, and 2) the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) that will work with another 20 institutions at an early stage of developing competency-based programs. In addition, with Gates Foundation sponsorship, Educause’s Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) initiative will work with selected institutions using a Breakthrough Models Incubator to create such programs. Public Agenda, CAEL, and Educause are coordinating their efforts to learn from one another going forward in order to maximize the benefits.

As growing numbers of institutions are considering launching some form of competency-based education, accreditors are engaging in conversations with institutions and one another about how to review such new programs and ensure their quality. Clearly, the CBE movement is gathering momentum. What should boards know about competency-based education and—equally important—what should they do about it in their fiduciary role?

Understanding the Basics

Competency-based education is a term that can apply to a range of different kinds of postsecondary degree programs. At the same time, every CBE program has two distinguishing features:

A competency framework.

Competency-based programs start by defining the competencies required of their graduates. The competencies are statements describing what graduates should know and be able to do. Those competencies included in a framework will vary by area of study or major, with different levels of the same competency distinguishing an associate’s degree from a bachelor’s degree. Think of a competency framework as the skeleton around which the degree program is designed.

For example, the competencies for Western Governors University’s (WGU’s) bachelor of science in information technology, software emphasis, are organized in “courses” such as foundations of college mathematics, which addresses the following competencies:

  • The student utilizes the operations, processes, and procedures of basic numeracy and calculation skills to solve quantitative problems in arithmetic and basic algebra.
  • The student applies the operations, processes, and procedures of basic algebra to solve quantitative problems.
  • The student utilizes the operations, processes, and procedures of basic geometry and measurement to solve problems in mathematics.
  • The graduate evaluates quantitative data by interpreting statistical and graphic representations and solves basic probability problems. (See complete program guide here.)

Competency-based assessments.

It is one thing for an institution to assert that its graduates have a specific set of competencies. It is quite another for it to verify that claim through valid and reliable assessments. CBE programs invest significant time and resources in competency-based assessments through which students demonstrate what they know and can do. Reaching the pre-determined proficiency levels in those assessments is a requirement for graduation, so graduates who go on to work or further study are able to say with confidence (and have the data to prove) that they have demonstrated all of the competencies in the program’s framework.

Individual CBE programs can vary quite a bit in how they operationalize the competency framework and the associated competency-based assessments. Some institutions follow a conventional path: They develop a competency framework from which the curriculum and individual faculty lesson plans are designed, and then integrate assessments into the regular credit-based course offerings. Other institutions do something entirely different by relying on competency-based assessments only. That is, students aiming for a baccalaureate degree do not necessarily accumulate 120 credits or take an average of four to five semester-length courses across the equivalent of eight semesters. Rather, students need to successfully pass the institution’s series of program-related, competency-based assessments in order to graduate. How they acquire the requisite knowledge and skills varies from program to program—and student to student. Some programs provide highly structured online learning modules, while others provide suggested learning activities that can include readings, lectures, project-based learning, or short online courses. Students also may have acquired some of the learning from their previous life, work, or military experiences. The same approach applies to associate’s degree programs and certificates.

Degrees through Assessment

Of course, assessment is not the only defining feature of CBE programs. The assessments are not easy; they require students to demonstrate college-level learning outcomes. And to do that, students need to gain additional knowledge to build on what they already know. Faculty members play an important role in guiding and coaching the student to acquire the learning they need, and there are many other support functions, such as advising, incorporated into these programs. But the important underlying premise of CBE-based programs is that what students know and can do is more important than how they learned it or how long it took to learn.

While colleges and universities have many CBE approaches from which to choose, it is the assessment-based model of CBE that has been getting a lot of attention in recent years. Perhaps the best-known assessment-based program is Western Governors University, which has been operating since the late 1990s. WGU does not offer traditional courses. Instead, students make progress toward their intended credential through online resources curated by WGU faculty. They work independently and at their own pace to learn what they need to successfully complete a series of assessments, with guidance from WGU faculty and coaches. Current offerings include teaching licensure and graduate programs, as well as bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business, information technology, and nursing.

WGU students are charged a flat rate of around $3,000 for a six-month term, during which they may complete as many competency-based assessments as they can. Students coming to the program with prior learning—whether from the workplace, military, or MOOCs—can use what they already know and can do to complete the assessments more quickly. Five states (Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington) have formed partnerships between WGU and their public postsecondary systems.

In recent years, several new CBE programs have emerged using variations of the assessment-based model:

  • Since 2008, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) has offered its online Learn on Demand modules that are mapped to associate-degree and certificate-program competencies. The modules are designed to be completed within three to five weeks, but students have the option to complete them more quickly. The assessments are individualized based on a student’s prior learning. At present, Learn on Demand offers two-year degrees in business, IT, and nursing; certificate programs; targeted skill training; and college-readiness programs.
  • The Northern Arizona University (NAU) Personalized Learning program offers bachelor’s degrees in liberal arts, computer information technology, and small business administration. Students take online courses or work through lessons that map to their program’s competency framework. As with the Kentucky Learn on Demand program, the learning module and assessments are calibrated to the student’s prior learning, which allows students to advance quickly through topics and competencies that they have already mastered. Launched in spring 2013, the NAU program costs $2,500 for a six-month term.
  • In early 2013, Southern New Hampshire University introduced College for America, which offers an associate’s degree program based on 120 competencies. Students learn through online resources curated by the faculty and demonstrate competency mastery by completing tasks or projects evaluated by faculty members. The competencies are broken into “task families.” For instance, the task family of “using business tools” focuses on tasks like “can use a spread sheet to perform a variety of calculations.” Students pay $2,500 per year and can continue to work on a competency until they achieve it.
  • In November 2013, The University of Wisconsin (UW) began offering the UW Flexible Option, developed from a partnership between University of Wisconsin System campuses and UW-Extension. The UW Flexible Option is similar to the other self-paced, assessment-based models, with coaches available to work with students to create a learning plan and prepare for assessments. At present, the programs include bachelor’s degree in nursing, biomedical sciences, diagnostic imaging, and information science and technology; a business and technical communications certificate through UW-Milwaukee; and an associate of arts and science through the UW System network of 13 two-year campuses.

Several other institutions have already developed assessment-based CBE programs, including Westminster College and Capella University.

Is CBE Really Something New?

The first CBE programs emerged more than 40 years ago in response to the significant changes underway in the demographic profile of American college students. The Higher Education Act of 1965, along with other federal programs at that time, prompted institutions to become more accessible to adults. One approach to serving adult students incorporated a focus on competencies—acknowledging a student’s previous learning and emphasizing performance rather than time in attendance. In the 1970s, the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) provided substantial grant support to develop competency-based programs at institutions with adult learning programs, including Alverno College, DePaul University School for New Learning, Empire State College, Regents College (now Excelsior College), Thomas Edison State College, and others.

This focus on learning rather than on time spent in a classroom also led to advances in prior-learning assessment (PLA) for college credit. Among the more popular PLA approaches were the assessment of student portfolios promulgated by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL); standardized tests such as the College Level Examination Program (CLEP), first administered by the College Board in 1967; and the Regents External Examination Program, launched by the New York Board of Regents in the 1970s. Excelsior College exams for nursing are still used today, and Excelsior’s exams in other areas are now called UExcel. Students who participated in training offered outside of an academic institution, such as the military or their employer, may also be eligible for PLA credit through credit recommendations from the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS) or American Council on Education (ACE).

While such assessment-based approaches were important at the time and continued for the next four decades, they existed largely on the fringes of higher education, almost always at “adult-focused” institutions or in special departments of continuing studies. The programs were virtually invisible in mainstream higher education.

Today, however, CBE is no longer ensconced in the adult-learning bubble; instead, it is the topic of frequent news-media coverage and congressional hearings fueled by a rapid expansion of new program offerings across the country. As illustrated in the earlier examples, many of the newer programs are based on assessments of demonstrated learning—not accumulated credit hours—to validate student progress toward degree completion.

At lower levels of competence, multiple-choice and other tests of objective learning may be appropriate. At higher levels of competence, however, getting at more complex and analytical thinking requires different kinds of assessment, such as student narratives, demonstrations, simulations, or performance-based assignments. An example of the latter might be an assignment that requires students to develop a memorandum that examines the proposals from two vendors—a task through which the student demonstrates written communication, computational, and analytical reasoning proficiencies applied to a concrete problem situated in a business context.

Implications for Boards

Most governing board members don’t think of their institution as “competency-based education” campuses, as we use the term in this article. Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, The University of Wisconsin, and other pace-setters employ specially designed assessments of incoming and enrolled students to determine what they know and can do as a result of work and life experience, studies at other institutions, and current learning activities. For the entire higher education enterprise, the CBE movement signals a shift in focus away from a reliance on the processes of learning (courses, credits, grades, years enrolled) as the primary indicator of quality toward the confirmation of student accomplishment (the actual knowledge, proficiencies, and dispositions students have acquired).

In fact, over the last decade, various groups, both in America and abroad, have devoted substantial effort to defining more precisely desired learning outcomes. Among the best known and most influential are the Essential Learning Outcomes promulgated in 2007 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) as part of its multi-year Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) campaign, and the five proficiency domains defined by Lumina Foundation in 2011 in the Degree Qualifications Profile (DPQ).

What does all this mean for governing boards? Without question, the processes of learning—student and faculty engagement, curricular rigor, richness and coherence, and other time-honored ways in which students learn—remain important. The lesson for governing boards, however, is that sound academic process alone is no longer sufficient to ensure quality or guide continuous improvement. Attention to learning outcomes is equally important.

Some of the questions that a board should consider about competency-based education include:

  • Is this approach appropriate for our institution?
  • What does it mean for us competitively if other institutions are offering this approach?
  • What would it take for us to pilot or adopt this approach?
  • Does this approach work better for some of our students than others?
  • How does our institution develop such a program while maintaining or improving quality and academic rigor?

Boards should also:

Make student learning a high, continuing priority. Even though presidents and boards have limited powers, they can exert influence by framing the agenda and shaping board and campus conversations. Beyond faculty giving students grades in individual courses, what data are collected to obtain evidence of student performance and used to improve it? How is this evidence shared within the institution? Is this information available in a meaningful form to prospective students, employers, and accreditors? Presidents and governing boards can make sure these issues are given proper priority on an already crowded institutional agenda.

Clarify the roles and responsibilities for ensuring academic quality within the board’s structure and processes. Most boards assign special responsibility for academic matters to an academic affairs or educational policy committee, but the board as a whole must be involved. The question of what constitutes academic quality too often takes the form of program reviews that focus on curricular offerings and faculty credentials, with too little attention to evidence of what students are actually learning. Understanding roles and responsibilities for the oversight of academic quality through the assessment of student learning outcomes can be a significant step forward in positioning the board, the administration, and the faculty to work together in this key arena.

Appreciate the promise but understand the limits of assessment. Those who advocate greater attention to the assessment of student learning (count us among them!) would do well to do so with humility. Assessment tools, especially standardized tests, have their limits. Students may not be motivated to do their best in assessment exercises, especially if the results are of no personal consequence. Relevant learning outcomes are not always easy to define. The aim of some learners is self-actualization; for others, it is liberal learning and critical thinking. Still others may have career goals that take primacy, and, for others, the aim may be further education in graduate or professional school. Even those institutions that count themselves as “competency-based education” campuses face the daunting challenge of meaningful assessment. Boards can help by setting a tone of informed inquiry rather than suggesting judgmental certainty.

Stay focused on the big picture and key actions that should flow from evidence of student learning. Colleges and universities tend to be highly decentralized. Authority and responsibility for the assessment of student learning are distributed among members of the faculty, various colleges, departments, academic programs, and in student affairs units. Some studies, such as student and employer surveys, are conducted annually; others, only periodically. And, occasionally, evidence may be assembled and used in connection with accreditation and academic program reviews.

Too often, however, the results of assessments of student learning outcomes do not lead to action. To what ends is this information being used in institutional decision making and to improve student outcomes and institutional performance? The board should expect that examples of productive use of assessment be presented in an understandable, coherent way so that it can be confident that the internal academic-quality controls of the institution are operating effectively. The chief academic officer and president are central actors in this effort, with the board providing the enabling authority while also benefitting from the periodic, comprehensive summaries of student accomplishment and institutional effectiveness.

Final Words

As new kinds of students with new needs are admitted, as technology continues to transform teaching and learning, as institutional missions evolve and priorities shift, and as new financial models are required, evidence of student learning will become even more important. In part, the competency-based education movement is a response to growing concerns about both the quality and the cost of higher education. CBE’s sharp focus on student learning outcomes is designed to validate the quality of the degree, while its technology-based approach to learning has the potential to lower cost for students and their families.

Even though CBE is not yet in the mainstream of American higher education, the odds are that many of its fundamental lessons soon will be. It has much to teach us, as these programs tend to serve nontraditional students who are learning in nontraditional ways. Confirmation of learning outcomes—competence—is a fundamental issue confronting every higher education institution and every learner. Whatever the challenge—defining the essence of what it means to be an educated person, improving student retention and graduation rates, or dealing with shrinking budgets and disruptive technology—integral to crafting a strategic response will be evidence about the extent to which students have learned what the institution promises and its students and society need. What is happening with regard to teaching and learning and the nature of the student experience? What are the outcomes? And how can they be improved?

Boards and institutions must continue to search for answers to these perennial questions. The quality of American higher education depends on it.

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