Published on 2016/03/07
The EvoLLLution | A CBE Overview: A Taste of CBE Today
Institutions today are making great use of technology to improve the competency-based education infrastructure and to find new ways of delivering much-needed degree programming to new groups of students.

This is the conclusion of A. Sasha Thackaberry’s two-part series providing an overview of the competency-based education (CBE) space. In the first installment, Thackaberry looked back at the recent history of CBE, outlining the major players who helped to bring CBE into the higher education commonsense. In this installment, she provides a taste of the institutions making a splash today.

In the past couple of years there has been a surge of interest in CBE. Where does this new momentum come from? Calls for reform of higher education in general, combined with suspicion about the practical value of many degrees, the financial support of CBE programs by influential funding agencies, and the increased ability of technology to effectively support the model have all contributed to a growing interest in, and support of, CBE. In 2005, the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act allowed “Direct Assessment” programs. In 2013, Southern New Hampshire University became the first college approved with this option.

Many colleges and universities—and even alternative educational providers—are working on developing CBE programs. Technical challenges abound, and IMS Global is doing work to untangle the thorny issues with, and standards of, legacy tech to new tech. National initiatives like the US Department of Labor’s TAACCCT grants have contributed to the expansion of such programs, while ACE’s CREDIT, and the ongoing work of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) continue to support increased acceptance and adoption of CBE.

The City University of Seattle’s CBE programs are focused on alternative teacher certification preparation programs at the graduate level, with their “performance-based” degree experiment started in 2001. They have since grown their programs beyond the graduate-level preparation degrees in teaching, curriculum and instruction, literacy specializations, special education and adult education to include bachelor’s degrees in management and information technology.

The second university approved as an experimental site for direct assessment was Capella University with their FlexPath program. The self-paced program enables students to move in an accelerated manner, providing they successfully demonstrate mastery on assessments. It utilizes a subscription-based cost structure with a flat quarterly fee. Other CBE programs have also employed a subscription-based model, which also incentivizes acceleration of degree completion—one of these is WGU.

Lipscomb University created a CBE program known as CORE, which is an acronym for Customized, Outcome-Based, Relevant Evaluation. They use a subset of Polaris’s 41 defined competencies and implement with a badging system. Lipscomb worked directly with businesses and stakeholders to determine the most relevant competencies appropriate for an undergraduate-level education.

Another recently developed program is that of Brandman University. Brandman is a founding member of the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN). They launched a new framework of competencies in 2011 following two years of discussion and focus on competencies. Their model utilizes several overall competency areas, including integrated knowledge, a disciplinary skills requirement and specific degree area requirements. They aligned these with the American Association of Colleges and University’s Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE). They crosswalk their competencies to 120 credit hours and utilize fully online courses that are self-paced.

Northern Arizona University recently launched their Personalized Learning Program, which first enrolled students in Spring 2013. The program enables students to use competency-based assessments in liberal arts, computer information technology and small business administration to accelerate their time to degree. Northern Arizona University also utilizes a subscription-based funding model. Though the program was approved by their regional accreditor, there has been some discussion about the requirements of substantive and regular faculty interaction, and concerns at the federal level. This is an issue of contention for definitions of direct assessment CBE programs versus programs being considered as correspondence courses.

Broward College’s program is at the associate’s degree level in IT training, which prepares students for technical industry certifications. Students are supported in their goal progress by academic coaches, who step in to help out when needed, and 170 students were enrolled in their program as of 2014.[1]

Westminster College’s CBE programs include both project-based CBE and self-paced online courses as part of their RN to BSN degree.[2] They are also involved in implementing the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) through the mapping of alignments with their outcomes.

There are many more CBE programs than those mentioned here currently functioning in higher education in the U.S., and perhaps hundreds more in various levels of development. Organizations like C-BEN and CAEL as well as Public Agenda and others are influencing the adoption of CBE as a legitimate and quality-driven alternative model within higher education. Grant funding through the TAACCCT grants, and programs like EDUCAUSE’s Breakthrough Models Incubator, as well as initiatives like Connecting Credentials (currently testing the Beta Credentials Framework,) the Credential Transparency Initiative and the work IMS Global is doing on the Technical Interoperability Pilot (TIP) are important to the increased adoption of CBE.

Critical to the overall success of these more modern CBE programs will be transparency. CBE has the potential to be far more transparent about what students will know and do as a result of their credential than traditional college degrees. Indeed the entire premise of CBE rests upon well-designed competencies paired with rigorous and accurate assessments. In CBE there is no guessing as to a student’s skills and knowledge. The student needs to prove it to progress.

This brief history demonstrates the increasing sophistication of CBE programs (largely supported by improved technology) grounded in a mission of access to serve post-traditional learners. But CBE has the potential to be for many different types of students as different models are designed and implemented. CBE is evolving with the support of technology to become simultaneously more scalable and more sustainable. Though it might be in vogue this season, CBE is nothing new; it’s just evolving.

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[1] Myers, A. “Competency-based Accelerated Training,” EDUCAUSE Review, November 24, 2014. Accessed at

[2] Council of Independent Colleges (2015). Competency-based education, (April).

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Additional References

Book, P. A. (2014). All hands on deck: Ten lessons from early adopters of competency-based education. Retrieved from

Freeland, J. (2014). From policy to practice. Retrieved from

Mendenhall, R. W. (2012). Western Governors University. In D. Oblinger (Ed.), Game changers: Education and information technologies. Washington, D.C.: EDUCAUSE.

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