Competency-based education is an outcome-focused approach that concentrates on the mastery of skills at the learner’s pace rather than within a specific period of time. Generally, the goal of competency-based learning is to ensure that students are acquiring the knowledge and skills that are deemed to be essential to success in school, higher education, careers, and adult life. With a competency-based education (CBE), students are able to receive a hyper-personalized learning experience while saving time and money.

Over the past five years, competency-based education (CBE) has been growing rapidly in higher education; however, the idea is not new. CBE first became popular in the US in the 1960’s, when employers felt students were not entering the workforce with the necessary skills for their careers. Now, with the support and development of emerging technologies, the benefits of CBE programs are becoming more and more appealing to both students and institutions.

The Benefits of CBE

More Affordable

For many students, the CBE model can be more affordable than a traditional seat-based model. Students are able to determine their learning pace, therefore education programs can be much faster than traditional “semesters” determined by a timeframe.

More Flexible

Thanks to advances in technology, CBE programs are becoming easier to implement with online learning platforms. One of the many benefits of online learning has been the flexibility in schedule and accessibility of course content, which goes hand-in-hand with the self-paced model for competency-based education. Additionally, technology allows professors to easily track students’ progress, even giving them the ability to set up triggered “warning signs” when a student seems to be struggling with a particular area.

Highly Personalized

With CBE models, students are not stuck with a “one size fits all” course schedule. Students are able tailor their program based on the skills needed to be successful in their future career. Again, technology comes into play here with the increasing growth of Open Education Resources, which give students access to an extensive library of supplemental resources for their personalized program.


Perhaps the most significant benefit of CBE is the relationship it creates with future employers. With CBE, students can now show that they have competencies that are directly tied to a specific set of skills needed for a specific career path.

With the traditional education model, employers receive student transcripts that are often not indicative of future job performance.  With CBE, employers can take advantage of new employer-facing applications that offer “clickable credentials”, allowing employers to double click on courses to learn more about competencies that graduates have demonstrated.

Institutions Innovating with CBE

According to Tech Crunch, over 500 colleges and universities are preparing to launch new CBE programs in the next year. Here are a few examples of institutions that have begun to integrate the notion of CBE into their programs.

  • Southern New Hampshire University was one of the first institutions to get federal student aid approval for its CBE program, utilizing Direct Assessment Programs to measure student success. Currently, close to 80 institutions are working with philanthrophic organziations like the Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to ensure approval and aid for their programs.
  • Western Governors University, a competency-based online university, has seen great success in their outcome-focused education program. Founded by 19 U.S. governors, WGU partners with 20 leading corporations and foundations to ensure their degree programs are relevant to their respective industries. According to WGU, the employment rate for WGU alumni who have graduated within the last 5 years is over 10% higher (79% compared to 66%) than the national average.
  • The University of Michigan introduced a competency-based degree program for a master’s of health professions, which utilizes distance-learning and a summative assessment. Larry Gruppen, Michigan’s chair of medical education, says the program is designed for professions in health fields who have some teaching responsibilities and want to climb the career ladder.
  • Purdue Polytechnic Institute, formerly known as Purdue College of Technology, designed a competency-based education program that integrates methods of learning driven by students’ interests as well as the needs of the marketplace. It hopes to lead the charge in CBE, offering group-based learning sessions, a feature some CBE institutions have yet to implement.

The common thread found throughout all CBE programs is the importance of technology in supporting the program. As we begin to see results from these newly implemented programs, technology is vital to track, measure and analyze the success of these programs and how we can continue to develop plans that put student success and knowledge at the forefront.

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