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Our Shared Responsibility in Expanding Competency-Based Programming

The EvoLLLution | Our Shared Responsibility in Expanding Competency-Based Programming
There’s a growing need for CBE programming in higher education, but it’ll take more than one department to achieve it.

Competency-based education (CBE) programming is becoming increasingly necessary in higher education. But creating and expanding CBE programs can be challenging, with barriers that go beyond the administrative level. Institutions are looking to other departments and state leaders to help establish and expand programs that will best serve their adult learners. In his interview, Kelle Parsons and Jessica Mason discuss the benefits of CBE programming, and reflect on the barriers (and possible solutions) to scaling CBE offerings.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the broad benefits to the competency-based approach?

Kelle Parsons and Jessica Mason (KP/JM): In our National Survey of Postsecondary Competency-Based Education, which we’ve been running for two years now, we hear that institutions are thinking about benefits to students for competency-based education in three categories: increasing access and success, improving affordability (or price to students), and improving quality. In our survey, the top-selected motivation for those implementing CBE is “expanding access for non-traditional learners,” along with “response to workforce needs” and “desire to improve learning outcomes,” which all fit with those broad categories.

Two factors seem to underlie each of these benefits: flexibility and transparency. Supporters believe CBE can expand access and success because it offers learners an opportunity to move more quickly through what they already know, take longer on what they don’t, and adapt their schedule to fit with other demands. Since those who are most under-served by traditional programs are often those with other commitments—families, work, and other responsibilities—this flexibility may be critical in allowing them to start and advance through their program. Transparency comes into play when considering that CBE programs clearly articulate what learners will know and be able to do by completing the program. Employers often seem to ask for this, and the longstanding research about adult learning theory suggests that knowing what they are learning and why similarly encourages learning and persistence. Ultimately, because a critical component of CBE is the assessments that determine mastery, learners have evidence they can provide that support claims about what they have learned.

And back to institutions: Those benefits to students may also benefit institutions as well. First, CBE can be considered a way to increase enrollment, though we’d caution that growth and achieving scale takes time and requires careful design choices and investment. Improving access and success may ultimately improve completion rates, which would also benefit institutions that are increasingly held accountable for helping students complete.

Evo: What barriers stand in the way of the further expansion of CBE offerings?

KP/JM: We were not necessarily surprised that, in our survey, institutions reported both internal and external barriers.

The most common internal barriers to launching or internally scaling CBE programs included dealing with institutional business systems and processes, which are not always well-equipped to support CBE programs. For example, because CBE program offerings may be limited to just a few programs within an otherwise traditional institution, it’s likely that systems and processes like financial aid and institutional research are not organized around CBE programs. And, because of the nature of CBE programs, the kinds of metrics that are tracked and the way data are collected may not be consistent with broader institutional practices.

Across institutions, CBE program start-up costs were commonly cited as a barrier for those hoping to adopt or expand CBE. And, especially for those institutions with interest in CBE but no programs yet, there’s a perception that CBE is competing for attention and resources against other priority initiatives on campus.

In terms of external barriers, federal student aid regulations and processes were the top-cited barrier regardless of institution type or whether they had already adopted CBE or were just interested. Nearly all federal student aid regulations are tied to those concepts of credit hours and terms, which requires significant navigation and planning to address. Mixed messages or direction from the Department of Education, Congress and accreditors can result in confusion or concern that becomes an off-ramp to expansion. Finally, it’s worth noting that even unfounded concern or confusion can be a challenge. If it’s not clear how an institution can proceed and still comply with all regulations—even if it’s possible—that’s hard for an individual department chair or program leader to take on. So, overcoming these individual barriers at every level requires coordination and alignment internally, which can be a challenge unto itself.

Evo: How can leaders of CBE programs overcome these barriers?

KP/JM: Despite those persistent barriers to CBE growth and expansion, there are important steps CBE program leaders can take to begin to break down some of these barriers—and we think those steps are a bit different between leaders of existing programs and those who aspire to develop CBE programs.

First, for leaders of existing CBE programs that overcame those barriers, a key starting point is a focus on documentation and sharing—of knowledge, of processes, of student outcomes and of lessons learned throughout their implementation journey.

Something that serves as a barrier for institutions early on— but later is cited as a facilitator of their work—is having expertise about CBE programs available. When those who’ve launched CBE programs share their knowledge, that can support other programs either on the same campus or at other institutions nationally. The Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) has been a key resource and hub for that kind of knowledge-sharing to date. That sharing can also be useful to addressing external barriers. For instance, when institutions willingly share data about student outcomes, details about their practices or their knowledge about quality, that helps policymakers, employers, accreditors and other decisionmakers considering support for CBE. Or, sharing technical requirements and knowledge with vendors, for instance, may help the vendor community continue to refine the tools for supporting CBE programs.

Second, those who aspire to build CBE programs on campus but don’t yet have a program can make early investments of time in understanding examples of programs elsewhere and engaging institution leaders and employers. Because there can be barriers along the path, having alignment and commitment—from both institution leaders and employers—to address those barriers can be useful. On a related point, we find that most of our survey respondents “don’t know” whether student demand or employer demand helped them. But far more said it was a help rather than a hindrance to their efforts.

And finally, bringing in experts or leaning on experienced CBE program leaders can shed light on how to sequence the various steps, and how to navigate key issues like accreditation approval. If someone isn’t yet ready to reach out to others, Deb Bushway, Laurie Dodge and Charla Long wrote a very useful book that outlines many of the key issues and decisions leaders might face.

Evo: What role do state and federal policymakers need to play in the proliferation of CBE?

KP/JM: State and federal policymakers can certainly facilitate or enable high-quality CBE through their roles in supporting innovation while protecting students as consumers. State policymakers can support CBE in their state by reducing barriers for students, such as credit-related requirements or GPA requirements for state financial aid programs, and can support institutions building CBE programs by providing program development grants. In our survey, program start-up costs were among the top-reported barriers by institutions, likely because true high-quality CBE requires a substantial, time-consuming redesign of programs and systems.

An example of how state policymakers have helped to address that barrier is the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate grant, which offsets some program development costs. States can also support cross-institution learning about CBE. Texas’ Institute for Competency-Based Education serves as an example, as does Ohio’s CBE Network. Finally, governors and their administrations can use their platform to articulate the value of CBE for employers and students, since, as we mentioned, employer and student demand can facilitate program development.

Federal policymakers’ roles are a bit more challenging, but are equally important for supporting innovation while protecting consumers. Eligibility for federal financial aid is a critical concern for programs; 46% of our survey respondents cited that as a key barrier. As we mentioned earlier, credit hours and terms are the infrastructure for many laws and regulations, and it may be hard to change that. Congress has considered supporting further study of CBE programs, and the Department of Education started experiments under the Experimental Sites authority about CBE. Those kinds of efforts might help inform the details of any policy changes to better support responsible CBE expansion while preserving the important role of consumer protection.

Evo: How can accreditors support CBE expansion?

KP/JM: Accreditors have an important role, and we see that in our survey findings. “Accreditors’ regulations and processes” were commonly cited as a barrier, but there’s also a group of institutions that said accreditors were helpful, which speaks to their importance.

We think it’s important to distinguish between institutional accreditors (regional or national) and program-specific accreditors. Institutional accreditors have an important role to play as they translate federal policies, and program-specific accreditors often have additional requirements that would affect CBE programs (for example, time-based requirements for certain courses or training opportunities).

In general, though, we’ve learned about a few steps that may be useful for accreditors, but these are just starting points. First, accreditors can be clear about what they consider to be a CBE program and when it requires review. Each of the regional accreditors has approached this slightly differently, and different types of CBE (Direct Assessment versus course-based programs, for example) can trigger different rules or processes. Either way, clarity can be helpful, as can additional support and guidance. Relatedly, even policies and processes still require navigation, so it can be important that the staff liaising with institutions are knowledgeable about those processes. This is also true about preparing site visit teams to ask and address important questions that may not apply in traditional contexts—for example, ensuring that site visit teams know about, and can ask probing questions about, how an institution validates learning and documents their process for determining credit equivalencies. These kinds of questions take specific expertise, and without knowledgeable people, it’s possible they could either allow subpar work to pass or create unintentional barriers for programs.

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For Further Reading

AIR co-developed two resources on this topic with institutions. 

For a general overview of outcomes metrics in CBE programs (authored by Kelle Parsons and Carlos Rivers): 

American Institute for Research, “Measuring Student Success in Postsecondary Competency-Based Education Programs: Toward a Student Outcomes Metrics Framework,” August 2017, 

For a deep dive on progression metrics: 

American Institute for Research, “Improving Measures of Student Progression: Lessons for Postsecondary Competency-Based Education Practitioners & Institutional Research Professionals,” November 2019, 

To learn more about this topic, consider attending the 2020 Fast Track To Success Conference, running June 9-10 in Austin, TX.

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