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Competency-Based Education and Accreditation: A Personal Perspective (Part 1)

The EvoLLLution | Competency-Based Education and Accreditation: A Personal Perspective (Part 1)
As competency-based education gains traction, assessment is becoming more and more important to the accreditation process and regulatory bodies are under pressure to shift the way institutional performance is judged.

In 2012 I gave a talk in which I asked, “If we focus on outcomes, do we really need courses?” My argument was that courses are just a means—one means—to the end: student learning. Other possibilities included on-the-job training, military experience, open courseware, self-study and avocations. The bottom line was that assessment could validate learning from any source.  And I posed the question: “What if the business model for HE is no longer sale of courses and credit hours but validation of learning?” (Wright 2012).

My “thought experiment” turned out to be a prefiguration of current competency-based education (CBE). Of course, CBE had existed before (see, for example, Kelchen; Blaire et al.; Berrett). But it has become a hot topic only in the last year or two, as some critical elements came together, including technology, demographics, college costs, institutional innovations, public pressure, and the United States Department of Education’s (USED) experimental sites program.

Accreditation, Assessment, and CBE

Two things led to my anticipation of CBE: assessment and accreditation.  Over many years I had watched (and promoted) the evolution of student learning assessment, including the shift from indirect to direct methods, the growing preference for authentic and complex methods over commercial multiple-choice tests, and the refinement of approaches like portfolios and rubrics for collecting and scoring evidence of learning. Today, not everyone in higher ed is a fan of assessment, but it’s gained a critical mass of support because faculty and administrators have discovered that, done right, it is an enormously useful tool.

Then there was accreditation. Since the late 80s, the USED has required accreditors to include educational outcomes in their standards (Wright, 2002). As a result, accreditors’ pressure on institutions to assess learning has been low-key but persistent. It’s lasted thirty years—hardly a fad. It’s no exaggeration to say that regional accreditation has been the single most important force for the implementation of assessment, and that, in turn, has positioned institutions to move into CBE.

Assessment is the linchpin for CBE. CBE pivots entirely on the assessment processes and skills of the awarding institution. Regional accrediting agencies’ most critical contributions have been, first, requiring institutional assessment of learning and second, providing support for institutions to develop the necessary intellectual capital and infrastructure. More recently, the Western Association of Schools and College’s (WASC) senior commission has gone farther: now WASC institutions must not only report on their assessment processes but on learning results. That is, they must set standards for academic performance and then report on how well students meet their standards (2013 Handbook of Accreditation).

In addition, regional accreditors have contributed to CBE through the substantive change process. Because CBE does not use the traditional currency of credit or clock hours, USED requires institutions to obtain approval for CBE programs from their accrediting agencies through a substantive change review in order to gain access to Title IV funding.  The review may seem like a time consuming inconvenience, but it’s actually doing institutions a favor. Across regional accreditors, the review tracks with USED expectations. It looks at the institution’s readiness in terms of staff, technology, learning resources, learning outcomes, and assessment expertise. Among other things, proposals must address equivalencies between competencies and credit hours, credit for prior learning, how faculty-initiated interaction with students is ensured, and how student progress is monitored. These are hardly trivial things, and the review by accreditors gives institutions an opportunity to address weaknesses before they go before USED for final approval.

The USED’s own list of approved experimental sites from 2014 lists 45 institutions, all of which were recognized by their accreditors, and that list does not include well-known players such as Arizona State University, Western Governors’ University or Alverno College. That number is set to explode: at a September 2015 meeting sponsored by Public Agenda and the Gates Foundation, some 600 institutions showed up, and a significant proportion of them are likely to get their accreditors’ approval. So you have to wonder about the view that “getting accreditors to sign off on these new programs hasn’t always been easy” (Fain).

Finally, in June 2015, the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) published a “Framework for Competency-Based Education” that lists eleven evaluation criteria regional accreditors will use when reviewing CBE programs.  The items on the list include assessment capacity and practice, external referencing of competencies, coherence of the degree, alignment with institutional mission, and the level of performance students must demonstrate.  These are highly relevant considerations and echo regional accreditors’ traditional focus on institutional quality and educational integrity. In contrast, the USED’s list of criteria for review of direct assessment programs focuses almost exclusively on how credit hour equivalency will be established (USED 2013). Equivalency is important as the pathway to Title IV funding, but arguably it is even more important to ensure the quality of the programs that those funds will be used for. Clearly, USED and regional accreditors are playing complementary, mutually supportive roles.

This is the first installment of a two part series by Barbara Wright discussing how accreditation is transforming to adapt to the rise of competency-based education. In the second installment, Wright shares specific changes that five major higher education stakeholders need to make to help facilitate CBE’s further growth.

Acknowledgement I would like to thank colleagues from several regional accrediting agencies for helpful conversations about the intersection of CBE and regional accreditation. Any errors and opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

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Berrett, D. (2015). How a 40-Year-Old Idea Became Higher Education’s Next Big Thing. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (2015). “Regional Accreditors Announce Common Framework for Defining and Approving Competency-Based Education Programs. Retrieved from

Fain, P. (2015) “Amid Competency-Based Education Boom, a Meeting to Help Colleges Do It Right.” Retrieved from

Kelchen, R. (2015). The Landscape of Competency-Based Education. Retrieved at

Kelderman, E. (2015). “U.S. to Put New Requirements on Accreditors.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http:// /article/US-to-Put-New-Requirements/234082

LeClair, J., and Berenson, R. (2015) “Designing a Competency Based Education (CBE) Program: Context, Challenges, and Pivots.” Retrieved at

Schneider, C. (2015) “Policy Priorities for Accreditation Put Quality College Learning at Risk.” Retrieved from

USED. (2015) Competency-Based Education Experiment Guide. Retrieved from

USED. (2014) Experiments Announced in the July 31, 2014 Federal Register: Competency-Based Education. Retrieved from

USED. (2013) Applying for Title IV Eligibility for Direct Assessment (Competency-Based) Programs. Retrieved from

Wall Street Journal. (2015) “Trust Busting Higher Ed.” Retrieved from /trust-busting-higher-education-1443997741

WASC  Handbook of Accreditation (2013). Retrieved from

Wright, B. (2002) “Accreditation and the Scholarship of Assessment.” In: The Scholarship of Assessment and Accreditation. Trudy Banta, ed. Jossey-Bass, P.240-258.

Wright, B. (2012). “The Challenge for Institutions – A Thought Experiment.” Talk delivered at AAC&U General Education and Assessment Conference, New Orleans, February 24, 2012.

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