Is CBE Almost the Next Big Thing?

The EvoLLLution | Is CBE Almost the Next Big Thing?
While competency and outcomes are changing the way we think about higher education’s benefits, the tools, systems and regulations that manage the industry have not adapted to facilitate its wider adoption.

It has been close to four years since Paul Fain wrote in his post “The Next Big Thing, Almost” that the biggest barriers stopping competency-based education (CBE) from fully evolving are regulatory.

Since then much has changed, yet much has stayed the same.

A key CBE characteristic is its focus on mastery. In other (more traditional) design models, students are presented with content delivered over pre-determined schedules, and completion, with its final measurement standards or grades, is at the end of that schedule and based on varied assessment strategies with most using tests. In the CBE model, students only continue once they have demonstrated mastery of the identified competencies (i.e., the desired learning outcomes, or skills, to be demonstrated).[1] Using the Competency-based Education Network’s (C-BEN) definition that CBE “combines an intentional and transparent approach to curricular design with an academic model in which the time it takes to demonstrate competencies varies and the expectations about learning are held constant” and that “Learners earn credentials by demonstrating mastery through multiple forms of assessment, often at a personalized pace,” the biggest barriers are still regulatory. For anyone not following the standard term (aka “semester”) or still focused on learning measured by time and not mastery (aka “direct assessment”), the impact is felt primarily in the area of financial aid.

Looking at the 2-year environment specifically, it’s critical to understand that financial aid impacts almost every community college student. “The percentage of students receiving aid at 2-year private non-profit institutions increased from 85 to 90 percent and the percentage of students receiving aid at 2-year public institutions increased from 62 to 76 percent” in 2012-13, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. However, the majority of aid is calculated and dispersed following methods that have been in place for decades and follow a traditional academic calendar. Criteria such as SAP (Satisfactory Academic Progress) must be considered on both a qualitative (grade-based) and quantitative (time-based) standard. And if an institution does offer some courses in one program that use a direct assessment method then all courses must use this method. This means that if a student wanted to take a CBE course it would put their Title IV aid at risk. Another area of confusion is that remedial courses are eligible for financial aid if offered in standard- or nonstandard-term programs (the “traditional” defined length offering) but are not eligible if offered in a non-term model even though the outcomes are the same. Many more questions face institutions interested in CBE and I highly recommend reviewing the recently published “Questions Every Financial Aid Professional Should Ask About Competency-Based Education Programs: A Resource Guide” offered by C-BEN.

Direct-assessment programs do not measure progress by credit or pre-defined time limits. As noted above, this impacts financial aid and has created a confusing set of calculations each institution must complete to convert an earned competency (or set of competencies) to a credit or time equivalency allowing the institution to calculate aid for the student. With semester, trimester and quarter, as well as standard and non-standard terms, the rules get very confusing very quickly. Great work has been done to define these terms (refer to “Understanding the Academic Calendar: A Resource Guide”) but clear federal guidelines are needed. Another challenge facing students is how to clearly transfer between institutions.

To take a simple view, it would make sense that a CBE course—using direct assessment and competencies approved through the accreditation process—would transfer easily to a traditionally designed course. However inadequate technology for CBE presents significant barriers to operation among 79 percent of C-BEN institutions. While some better-funded schools invest in custom solutions to address the gaps, this is not an affordable or advisable path for most institutions. The simple view is not supported and the process for those institutions that want to measure and award based on demonstrated mastery is to convert back to the standard credit hour and provide the student with two different transcripts. The same survey indicated that 42 percent of C-BEN institutions are issuing “dual transcripts” — one or two documents that include traditional credit-hour grade measures and the new CBE mastery-based achievement designations. Some institutions (30 percent) include defined levels of performance beyond “mastered.” If the difference is how the student demonstrates their acquisition of knowledge whether by showing their competence or by taking a multiple choice test the result should be equal if accreditation and regulatory rules are truly in alignment.

In “Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future” the focus is on three R’s, Redesign students’ educational experiences, Reinvent institutional goals, and Reset the system. Getting past the barriers of time and being more accessible to students both in terms of time and aid will make a positive impact. We need to:

  • Support acceleration
  • Award credit for prior learning
  • Confer micro-credentials with value in the job market during the course of the undergraduate experience
  • Effectively serve students who move in and out of various academic institutions and jobs
  • Offer schedules and delivery modes that better fit into the students’ complex lives
  • Provide proactive student support structures

More importantly we need to find tools, techniques, regulators and the rationale to eliminate these barriers to allow students to learn in an affordable, time-conscious and seamless path that leads to their success.

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[1] “What Is Competency-Based Learning?” TeachThought, April 18, 2016. Accessed at

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