Competency Based Education: A History of the New New Thing

Burck Smith

The new new thing in higher education is quote_general_050814_2Competency Based Education (CBE for short, and has also been referred to as “personalized learning”).

It is an educational approach that shifts the balance between time and learning. CBE moves away from time being the constant (i.e. every student stays in the class for a semester, regardless of how quickly they learn), to learning being the constant (i.e. students demonstrate learning at their own pace, regardless of how much time it takes).

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The Rise of Competency Based Education: Earning Credit for What You Know

CBE programs are self-paced and online, provide academic tutors and mentors, rely on students passing one or more tests to receive college credit and have “all you can eat” or subscription pricing models. CBE became a “thing” when the Department of Education first allowed such programs to be accredited in the Spring of 2013.

The Early Years: Reducing the Cost of a College Degree

Western Governor’s University (WGU), the granddaddy of CBE, was reviewed and approved by all six regional accreditors to offer competency based programs, enrolling its first students in 1999 – 14 years before the DoE officially created the official Competency Based Education category.

Similarly, in 2008, StraighterLine began offering self-paced, online, tutor-supported, general education courses that were recommended for credit by the American Council on Education’s Credit Recommendation Services (ACE Credit). WGU showed that the price of a degree could drop to $6,000 per year. StraighterLine showed that the price of the first year could drop to less than $1300. The Department of Education took note and created the CBE category in 2013.

The Growth Period: The Competency Based Education Network

As interest in CBE has grown, the Lumina Foundation created the Competency Based Education Network (C-BEN) in the spring of 2014. 18 different colleges comprise its membership and either offer or plan to offer CBE. These institutions are:

  • Antioch University
  • Argosy University*
  • Brandman University*
  • Broward College
  • Capella University’s Flex Path*
  • Charter Oak State College*
  • City University of Seattle*
  • Depaul University
  • Excelsior College*
  • Lipscomb University
  • Salt Lake Community College
  • Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America
  • Northern Arizona University
  • University of Maine at Presque Isle*
  • University of Maryland University College*
  • Westminster College
  • University of Wisconsin Flexible Option

*StraighterLine partner colleges

These programs cost between about $2,500 and $6,000 per year. Almost all Competency Based Programs will accept ACE Credit recommended courses in transfer. Most of the Lumina C-BEN colleges are also StraighterLine partners.

The Future of Competency Based Education: Degrees for Working Adults

Given the flexibility and affordability of CBE, it is anticipated that CBE programs will be most appealing to working adults and their employers. Working adults value the convenience and low-prices of competency based programs. They are also less interested in the trappings of a traditional college experience like athletics and dormitories.

Working adults interested in enrolling in a CBE program should check with their employer to see if tuition assistance (also called tuition reimbursement) is available for CBE and ACE Credit recommended programs.

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