Competency-based education (CBE) is a system of learning in which students progressively master specific skills and knowledge at their own pace. In higher education, CBE operates differently from the traditional college model. As Dr. Robert Mendenhall explains in the Huffington Post, “While most colleges and universities hold time requirements constant and let learning vary, competency-based learning allows us to hold learning constant and let time vary.”
Instead of a paying for tuition by semester, a CBE program bills students for a six-month unlimited subscription to course material and resources. Students earn competency units (the equivalent of credit hours) when they demonstrate their skills through completing assessments within the time period. In competency-based programs, the faculty’s role shifts from “a sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side,” says Mendenhall, providing students the support they need during their studies.
By placing a greater focus on learning than on time, competency-based programs allow students to acquire skills at a pace that works best for them. The model particularly benefits adults with college experience who seek to complete or advance their degrees. When students bring their skillsets from prior education and work experiences, they move quickly through material they already know and focus on the skills they need to develop. This approach often accelerates the degree process, saving students time and money.
CBE more accurately represents a student’s knowledge gained through courses. As the Glossary of Education Reform explains, students in traditional education models “typically earn academic credit by passing a course, but a passing grade may be an A or it may be a D, suggesting that the awarded credit is based on a spectrum of learning expectations—with some students learning more and others learning less.”
In contrast, CBE holds the variation in courses and educators constant by applying the same standards to all students, who will only advance when they demonstrate clear competency of the material. This way, all students graduate from their programs ready to apply their earned skills in the workforce.
Not only is CBE beneficial to students; it’s beneficial to employers, too. A competency degree demonstrates the attainment of both tangible skills, like Java programming or critical wound care, and intangible skills, like time-management and self-motivation, that employers seek in their workplaces.
In a U.S. News article on employer perception of online, competency-based degrees, Billy Parsons described his CBE degree as a reflection of how he would approach work for an employer. “[Employers] have noted that credentials from competency-based programs can be of value to their organizations if the competencies that a student masters are aligned with employer needs,” says Joy Henrich in her 2016 study on employers’ perspectives of CBE.
Henrich found that 100 percent of survey participants, comprised of HR professionals and hiring managers from a variety of industries, considered candidates with CBE degrees as a “viable option for hiring into positions that required a college degree.”
In their studies, Henrich, Franklin and Lytle emphasize the significant role that competency-based education colleges can play to bridge the gap between academia and the labor market. Certain competency-based education colleges, such as the nonprofit, online WGU North Carolina, work with employers to craft programs that match the needs of employers with the skills of the students.
Through such partnerships, competency-based programs can actualize their full potential to help hardworking students land their next dream jobs.