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The Rise of Competency-Based Education

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Higher education is currently experiencing what is arguably the most extreme period of change of its entire history. Although over the past centuries, higher education has progressively become available to larger numbers of people, what goes on in the classroom has largely remained the same. Professors stand in front of classrooms and give lectures, sometimes to hundreds or even thousands of students, who are expected to absorb it all and then apply their knowledge to writing papers and taking tests.

There are a couple of problems with this model that have become even more pressing in recent years:

  1. More people need education, but fewer can afford it
    Over the past several decades, the cost of education has risen faster than any other industry sector, including healthcare. Today, a quality traditional education is priced out of the reach of most people. Complicating this picture is the fact that employers are increasingly requiring candidates to have degrees, even for entry-level positions.
  2. A traditional degree takes too long to earn
    Although we think of bachelor’s degrees as typically taking four years to earn, in reality fewer than half of students complete their degree in this time. Not only does earning a traditional degree delay students’ entry into the workforce, but also affects the value of the skills those students learn: in today’s rapidly changing world, few technical skills even have a shelf-life of as long as five or six years. In addition, the student demographic is shifting as more adults are going back to school—not to earn degrees, but to acquire skills.
  3. Traditional degrees say very little about what skills are acquired
    Students want skills that will help them get good jobs, and employers want to hire candidates with certain skill sets. However, the fact that a student earns a particular degree says little about what that student can actually do. This problem has become increasingly evident as skills gaps widen—multiple surveys have found that employers don’t believe the higher education system is doing a particularly good job at preparing students for the workforce.

These three issues have been the main driving forces behind a growing trend toward competency-based education, which has the potential to provide students with options for more affordable, more meaningful credentials that can be earned in shorter periods of time.

What is competency-based education?

Competency-based education, or CBE, is a model of education in which credits are awarded based on the demonstration of content mastery, rather than on seat time. CBE can be either in person or online, but the dominant model is a self-paced, online program in which students work through learning materials on their own and then take online assessments. When they have passed the assessments, and thus demonstrated their mastery of the concepts, they move on to the next set of competencies.

4 Competency-Based Education Advantages

CBE has a variety of advantages over traditional education:

  1. It is flexible
    Students learn on their own schedule and at their own pace. These two elements are crucial for meeting the needs of adult learners, who are often also juggling work and family commitments.
  2. It is affordable
    CBE programs are considerably less expensive than traditional programs because students don’t attend formal classes.
  3. It is personalized
    Students generally have options for how to master content, and many CBE programs provide the opportunity for students to gain credit for prior learning.
  4. It is transparent
    Unlike degrees, competencies are directly tied to specific skills that students need to demonstrate before moving on. This makes the earned credentials more useful to employers, who can assess exactly what graduates of CBE programs are able to do.

CBE is still somewhat on the fringes, but it is making inroads in higher education, and even in high schools. The federal government has been a vocal advocate for CBE, and earlier this year, the Competency-Based Education Network announced a group of 18 colleges and universities that will participate in researching and developing CBE programs.

The trend toward CBE is just one of the few ways education is changing. However, as the price of higher education continues to skyrocket, and the supply continues to fall short of demand, CBE will likely comprise a larger part of the educational landscape.