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Three Myths of Competency-Based Education: Separating Fact from Fiction

The EvoLLLution | Three Myths of Competency-Based Education: Separating Fact from Fiction
Competency-based programming is the latest hot trend in higher education, but leaders need to consider how in-demand these programs truly are.

With all the buzz surrounding competency-based education, many universities are eager to jump on the CBE bandwagon. But in the Education Advisory Board’s recent research initiative—including interviews with over 100 colleges and universities either with CBE programs or launch plans—the consistent advice from early pioneers is: look before you leap.

Without a doubt, CBE is a pedagogically promising model, and one likely to only improve in its effectiveness as those on the frontier pave the way. However, for most higher education institutions, CBE is not the hoped-for magic bullet for solving our recruiting, access, cost or completion challenges—at least not yet. To the contrary, EAB research uncovered three prevailing myths about the CBE business model.

Much of the confusion around CBE surrounds its very definition. Looking at the range of programs branded “competency-based” in press releases or the news media, they all seem to have completely different features. Some focus on ideas such as problem-based learning or outcomes-based design that many would argue aren’t new models or unique to CBE—they’re just good pedagogy. Additionally, CBE is also often conflated with prior-learning assessment.

The predominant definition is that CBE is academic credit awarded based on mastery of clearly defined competencies, rather than seat time. Put another way, in traditional education, time is fixed, and mastery is variable; in CBE, mastery is fixed, while time is variable. What’s new in CBE conversations today is that new technologies allow “personalization at scale,” affording each student a differentiated pathway through the content based on what they know/don’t know, where they need the most support, and how much time they need to master each competency along the way.

Through conversations with early adopters about what has been harder than expected in CBE implementation, EAB research focused on three myths (excerpted below):

Myth #1: Students and employers are demanding CBE

College and university leaders often mention to us that they’ve heard (usually from vendors selling CBE solutions) that students are specifically looking for CBE programs. By contrast, many first movers have found that promoting the phrase “competency-based” leads to confusion in the marketplace, as students don’t yet know what CBE means; as a result, early pioneers have de-emphasized CBE in their promotional materials over time, instead emphasizing flexible and affordable online degrees.

Myth #2: CBE programs are faster and lower cost for students 

Early CBE programs are rightfully proud of their inspiring success stories, whereby working adult students have completed their self-paced degrees with extraordinary speed—sometimes a mere matter of months. Unfortunately, this isn’t the norm. Only a minority of CBE students in established programs have been able to accelerate through their degrees, and, under many university subscription models, CBE degrees are only lower-cost if students complete at a quick pace. Furthermore, while many schools (and states) hope that CBE can provide a needed boost to bachelor’s degree completion rates, those with low academic preparedness are the least likely to succeed in a self-paced program, making graduate programs a better candidate for student CBE success.

Myth #3: CBE programs are lower-cost for higher education institutions

Perhaps one of the biggest lessons learned by CBE programs has been the number of unanticipated expenses, including additional student support personnel (a necessity for self-paced programs), faculty course development time, learning technologies, and back-office costs.

Where To Go From Here?

At its heart, CBE envisions a future where curriculum and outcomes are better matched to jobs, and where the timing and content of education are more personalized to individual needs. These are worthy goals. Ask any of the institutions on the CBE frontier why they’re committed to CBE, and they will tell you that it’s for these pedagogical reasons.

New innovations always come with early business model challenges, and all of higher education will benefit from those early CBE pioneers leading the way to confront those challenges head on. In addition to early adopters with full CBE programs, many colleges and universities are launching smaller (but no less significant) personalized learning pilots, such as in adaptive learning, self-paced courses, or PLA; we will learn from them too.

To be sure, as the market matures, the statements above may evolve into facts, rather than myths. However, for now, institutions interested in launching new CBE degree programs need to ask themselves a few critical questions: Will we be able to afford the costs (especially when external dollars run out)? Is our back office ready? More importantly, is this right for our students, and do we have the infrastructure to help them succeed?

For more resources from EAB on competency-based education programs, please click here.