What you should know about Competency Based Education.

I wanted to title this post “Competency Based Education for Dummies” yet I don’t believe that “Dummies” actually exist.   People aren’t “Dummies.”   They may lack education or lack interest in learning a topic.  However, chances are if you have a curiosity to learn about Competency Based Education (CBE), you clearly lack neither; and therefore not likely labeled a “Dummy” either.

When I first learned of CBE, I was under-educated and did lack interest in the topic.  I was so disinterested that I actually misunderstood CBE completely.  I thought CBE was an all-you-can-learn, buffet-style pedagogy that expedited the process of awarding degree to students.  My initial introduction to CBE, lead me to believe it lacked rigor and would saturate our college’s strong academic reputation so I dismissed it completely….That is until someone said, the traditional method of education was too focused on the wrong end of the student, their seat instead of their mind.  That seemed to pique my interest.


I now understand why CBE is the future.  What is so brilliant about CBE is it represent a triangulation of needs from students, hiring managers and educators.  Students pay less and can get through the program faster.  Hiring Managers can assess traditional students and lifelong learners based on competencies.  AND educators, well we just get excited about the next new thing in the classroom…even if it’s a virtual classroom.

There are two types of CBE.  The Direct Assessment model where the entire program is broken down into competencies; and Course Based Assessment where courses are broken down into competencies which roll-up into programs.  A competency is very similar to a program outcome. However, typically a competency is more clearly defined in terms of applied skills or knowledge that most maps either to a prerequisite for a further competency or a job requirement in industry.

Below are a few quick things to know about CBE:

1.  CBE measures learning (competencies), not seat time.   A student is either proficient in a competency or they are not based on very defined assessment measures.  It’s a Pass/Fail system where a PASS means you are 85%-100 proficient in a competency.   You must PASS all of the competencies to graduate.  CBE’s Pass/Fail system essentially eliminates underperforming students who limp along the traditional learning process and graduate lacking many of the required skills to be successful in the job market.  Remember the joke, “What do the call the doctor who graduates last in his class at medical school?”  In a traditional school, the answer would be “Dr”.  In CBE, the answer is “low performing students stay in the system until they are proficient enough in the skills required to be called Dr.”  (WHY?)

2.  CBE is less expensive.  Typically students pay tuition fees.  Tuition ranges vary from $2,500 per year at Southern New Hampshire University to $5,580 at Western Governors University.  Students can accelerate through the competencies at their own pace and therefore if you are a fast, aggressive learner, then it will cost less in both time and money.

3.  You can’t skip competencies that you already know.  That is Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), not CBE.  Students are required to complete all competencies regardless of their existing skills, experience and prior learning.  However, if you are already competent in a skill, students may skip the learning module and lessons to just take the final assessment for the competency.  In theory, this helps reduce the time-to-completion.

4. CBE is more rigorous because students have to demonstrate high levels of competency to progress.  While in traditional programs, students can slide through difficult courses with Cs and Ds as long as their cumulative GPA remains above the graduation requirement.   Which leads me to conclude, that we are safer driving over bridges designed by engineers who graduated from a CBE than those bridges designed by traditional students.

5. CBE facilitate Job Placement.  With CBE, job candidates can list competencies (instead of courses) on their resumes.  Hiring managers identify candidates based on the specific skills/competencies needed to be successful as an employee. Implementation 0f CBE at colleges across the USA has been described as trying to “Unscramble Scrambled Eggs” as it requires changes in curriculum, accreditation, faculty roles, financial aid, and mass marketing campaign so that the masses know why CBE is most beneficial to both traditional age and life-long learners.  It is no simple nut to crack but over 600 Colleges and Universities are moving in that direction. CBE has the potential to make education more affordable and empower life-long learners to acquire and promote their competencies to launch careers, find jobs and enjoy a sustainable future.


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