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Designing a Competency Based Education (CBE) Program: Context, Challenges, and Pivots

Co-written with Robin Berenson, Associate Dean of Business at the School of Business and Technology, Excelsior College


The EvoLLLution | Designing a Competency Based Education (CBE) Program: Context, Challenges, and Pivots
A new competency-based program cannot succeed without strategic foresight and support from a wide range of institutional and external stakeholders.

In recent years there has been growing attention to competency-based education and training, despite it not being a new concept. Over the years it has changed from the earliest vocational education models to more creative, inclusive and complex paths to attaining knowledge in higher ed.

Competency based education (CBE) is, in many ways, an outgrowth of the earlier concept of outcomes based education (OBE) but they vary in that OBE has an initial goal or stated outcome that is sought by the education, whereas CBE is concerned with a narrow skill set that must be demonstrated to have been mastered by the learner.

The Department of Education officially recognized Competency Based Education in 2013, but many institutions such as Excelsior College (then Regents College), and Western Governor’s University (WGU), were already onboard for the program years before that. In the late 1960’s and early 70’s a handful of pioneering schools—Alverno College, DePaul University’s School for New Learning, Empire State College, Excelsior College (then Regents College) and Thomas Edison State College—began programs that awarded credit based on what the students knew rather than where or how they had gained that knowledge.

Over the years other learning institutions joined the movement towards CBE and in 2014 the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) was created by the Lumina Foundation. Nearly two dozen colleges, representing a diverse range of institutions, are members.

Four areas of concern provide context for the movement towards CBE:

  1. Value and importance of a college degree
  2. Concerns about the quality of student learning
  3. Changing student demographics
  4. Cost of, and access to, a college degree.

With concern, there is opportunity to refocus on application and demonstration of knowledge, alignment with external stakeholders to ensure current and future competencies are meaningful to the job market, and providing flexible and personalized pathways catered to the needs of the students.

CBE enables motivated students to maximize their prior experience and provides a pathway to the workforce by focusing on skills and competencies that are meaningful to employers. Utilizing the expertise of partners and industry experts, we have been able to develop competencies that are in alignment with workforce needs as well as addressing gaps in education but also in industry (demonstration of knowledge and workforce readiness).

Integrating CBE into existing institutional structures can be challenging. Johnstone and Soares (2014) identified four key design principles that should be followed to be successful: the degree reflects robust and valid competencies, students are able to learn at a variable pace and are supported in their learning, effective learning resources are available any time and are reusable, and assessments are secure and reliable. We suggest a fifth: the balance between time, assessment and demonstrated learning, focusing on quality. This is where the gap between education and industry can be aligned.

The College’s Bachelor of Business (BSB) CBE academic model builds upon Excelsior’s longstanding institutional expertise in Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) and credit aggregation in order to provide a needed bridge between a traditional credit-hour model and a completely time-independent CBE program. The academic model was developed in conjunction with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as part of the Breakthough Models Incubator program sponsored by Educause, involvement in the initial cohort for the Competency-Based Education Network (CBEN), external industry partners, and an internal college-wide stakeholder working group. Involving internal and external stakeholders provided an expanded view of the emerging trends and challenges in competency-based education, aligning education and workforce needs resulting in a credential that holds real value in the workplace.

The reoccurring question and theme during the development of the model led to the theme of how it fits the institutional mission and vision, who are the internal/external stakeholders, and how do we plan, implement and evaluate lessons learned? Five key areas that we considered in the development are: strategy, planning and communication, curriculum and course development, program delivery, the student experience, and employer and workforce alignment and collaboration. We chose to use a credit-hour hybrid model, ensuring that credits earned at the college are portable, easily transferable, accessible to Title IV funding, and supportive of our institutional mission to provide educational opportunity to adult learners and meeting students where they are—academically and geographically.

Several core elements of the academic model ground the strength of the approach:

  • Leveraging our expertise through well-established processes for evaluating and aggregating prior learning
  • Multiple, academically-sound and proven pathways that can be used in combinations (mixing and matching) towards degree completion
  • Faculty and industry developed, third-party validated, program-wide competencies
  • An integrated three-stage (foundation, practice and application) capstone experience emphasizing authentic assessments, simulation, real-world application and life-long learning.

In other models, the educational experience is self-directed, self-paced and modularized. In most cases, it is offered through a subscription model that allows students to take as many assessments as they can during a particular term for a preset fee. There is an allowance to repeat the assessments until mastery of specific competencies. The differentiator in our model is the focus on our reputation as a credit aggregator through multiple pathways to degree completion (Mix and Match), externally validated program competencies, integration of an enhanced student support model, as well as assessment of individual strengths and weakness that are reinforced in a capstone experience that is personalized and instructor-led. Students take part in active learning activities which promote instructor-student, student –content, and student-student learning, reflective thinking, team-based social learning, and real-world application. This focus prepares the student for lifelong learning and the recognition that learning is not just about the end goal, but a process.

Because of the sophisticated credit aggregation, assessment and advisement processes embedded within the CBE-BSB model, students may take as little as the capstone course(s) at Excelsior before earning their degree. In our program design, we started from the back with the signature capstone. We envision the capstone course as an important component in determining the effectiveness of the different pathways students utilize to complete the program as well as demonstration of workplace competencies required by employers.

Tradition and history (40 years in CBE and PLA) serve as a grounding point and a challenge. Many lessons were learned and pivots occurred during development and implementation. Three key areas emerged: internal communications, program operationalization and course design. This was not surprising as we designed within existing structures. Leading from within and above resonate with the shared learning; that communication is key. This translates into walking and talking with stakeholders and college leadership as well as leveraging the expertise of those before you. Having a dedicated project manager focused on how the “parts” integrate has been instrumental in the success. In short, the likelihood of success will occur if certain principles are followed:

  • Involve the right stakeholders and understand the effect on all business processes, always focusing on the institutional mission
  • Create a shared vision for deliverables and completion
  • Highlight the key differentiators
  • Innovate with a vision of future iterations

CBE is not a new concept in higher education, but change is being driven based on the quality of the education as well as access and cost. The challenge to learning institutions is to innovate with a purpose rather than with an eye to being the “next big thing.”

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Hill, P. (2013, December). Competency-Based Education: An (Updated) Primer for Today’s Online Market. E-Literate. Retrieved from


Johnstone, S. M & Soares, L. (2014, March-April). Principles for Developing Competency-Based Education Programs. Change. Retrieved from


Smith, B. (2014, May). Competency Based Education: A History of the New New Thing. Straighterline Blog. Retrieved from