It’s what you know and how you apply it that matter … not whether you sat through the class
Research and Evaluation

It’s what you know and how you apply it that matter … not whether you sat through the class

Competency-based education programs are growing in popularity and are seen by schools as an important way to reach adult learners and emphasize job readiness among graduates, a new study shows.

However, most CBE programs still serve relatively few students, and though universities and colleges value competency-based education, many of them are still slow to adopt full CBE programs.

Those are among the findings of a Lumina-funded study done to better understand the adoption of CBE, including the diversity of institutional practices and approaches across the country.

CBE emphasizes instruction designed around specific competencies. To advance or complete a CBE program, a student must demonstrate those specified skills and abilities, though students are given some flexibility in the length of time they take to do so.

Lumina Foundation funded the study – conducted by the American Institutes for Research and Eduventures – because CBE is a learning-centered approach that shows tremendous promise, especially when taken to full scale. CBE offers a new way to serve many students who seek clearer pathways and credible options to the traditional higher education model. And CBE programs have much to teach others in more traditional, time-based education programs.

But compelling logic and anecdotal information aren’t enough. This study provides data that can help convince campus leaders, policymakers and other stakeholders that CBE can broaden education access, improve affordability and offer students high-quality postsecondary experiences.

The report shows that universities and colleges with CBE programs are serving relatively few students. Over half of survey respondents indicated undergraduate enrollment of fewer than 50 students. And only 4 percent of universities and colleges with CBE programs reported enrollment of more than 1,000 students. Perhaps some institutions are deciding to serve few students initially and then scale up.

The slow pace of adoption of full CBE programs may be a result of the many barriers that colleges and universities face. More than half of the colleges and universities in the study cited three barriers: federal student aid, institutional business processes, or high start-up costs.

Although CBE faces daunting barriers to scale, the report shows that many universities and colleges are positive about future growth: 75 percent reported that they expect the number of CBE programs nationally to increase in the next five years.

The study also poses critical questions about how the programs can be implemented, and it closes with recommendations for institutional leaders and policymakers.

“Future editions of the (survey), currently planned for 2019 and 2020, will continue to address these questions and track the evolution of the field over time,” the report said.

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