Competency-Based Education Validates Learning

The value and promise of competency-based education (CBE) is generating a lot of interest and attention. As a topic that affects students seeking post-secondary credentials, business leaders looking for skilled workers, and higher education policy makers, CBE stands out as an idea that could bring real change to higher education.

June 20 and 21, Lumina Foundation, Army University and the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) hosted the 2017 Education Symposium: A Competency-Based Approach to Talent: Connecting Military, Higher Education, and Workplace Learning. Topics at the symposium centered on how to recognize people’s skills and learning that have happened outside the classroom and how to transfer that learning to credentials that are recognized by business and industry.

Danette Howard, senior vice president and chief strategy officer and Lumina Foundation said at the symposium, “We need to move to a post-secondary learning system based on actual learning versus the time student spend in seats. Competency needs to be currency of learning beyond high school.”

The Policy Snapshot from the Education Commission of the States (ECS) says, “The main goal of competency-based education serves to award credit/degrees to students for meeting specific skill competencies agreed upon by faculty, industry leaders and workforce representatives.” Being awarded credit for having specific competencies is important for working adults, adults going to school to complete a degree, low-income students who could not afford to complete a degree, or military personnel who have gained knowledge and skills through their service.

The rate of nontraditional students in higher education is growing faster than the rate of younger students under 25, according to ECS. This increase in the adult student population is creating some momentum among states to consider the value and importance of CBE. In 2016, only three states considered CBE legislation and only one bill was enacted. Already in 2017, at least five states have considered CBE legislation, seven bills were introduced, two bills have been enacted and five are pending.

If competency-based education can help align the skills and knowledge of workers with credentials required by business, it could also be a solution to closing the skills gap. This gap, said Jason Tyszko, executive director of the Center for Education and Workforce and US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, “is hurting our economic competitiveness, it’s hurting our ability to grow the economy and it’s contributing to anemic growth.”

CBE could also be a solution to another challenge – the need for continuous learning, said Tyszko. “We are in a dynamic, changing labor market. Changing skill requirements are pushing the existing workforce to up-skill and up-credential throughout the course of their lives.” Considering CBE credentials means that businesses change their hiring practices to focus more on what workers know and can do, rather than focus on a resume of what they have done in the past or classes they have taken.

Laurie Dodge, board president of C-BEN and vice chancellor of institutional assessment and planning and vice provost at Brandman University in Irvine, California said that more than 600 schools are building CBE programs. This could help businesses who often are unsure what skills and talents are represented by a student’s degree or transcript. She says CBE produces a “can-do” statement of students’ abilities. “It really states what a student can do and whether they’ve mastered that skill.”

That brings the next big challenge for competency-based education into focus: establishing common language about competencies. Last fall, C-BEN developed a draft of Quality Standards for Competency-Based Educational Programs.This document defines exactly what competency means to accrediting agencies, the US Department of Education and all interested stakeholders, and helps develop CBE as a valid measure of skills and learning.