The Student Experience: How Competency-Based Education Providers Serve Students

By Elizabeth Blume

The Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute recently issued a report on Competency-Based Education (CBE). It details how four prominent CBE providers design their programs to meet the needs of “non-traditional” students and argues that given CBE’s focus on demonstration of ability, rather than time spent in class, CBE holds significant promise for traditionally disenfranchised groups in the higher education sector. As CBEs are a “new form of higher education” the report recommends that further research be done on student experiences and outcomes.

Among the primary questions regarding CBE that the report asks include:

What is a CBE Program?

  • CBE programs award credit based on a student’s demonstrated competencies, usually linked to specific skills in specific industries.
  • Providers follow a “material learned” approach, offering multiple pathways to demonstrate proficiency.
  • The schedule and timing of classes, time to degree and course materials are flexible.
  • Choices of major and classes within majors are determined in advance with little flexibility for change later.
  • CBE programs appeal to students over 25 who are in the workforce, and have families.

How does one enter a CBE program?

  • CBEs require previous college or professional experience and encourage the transferring in of credits from other colleges and universities.
  • CBEs give credits for learning in non-academic settings including military training, professional certifications, and non-credit classes. Students receive guidance from advisors about presenting evidence of mastery.
  • Courses start frequently, but must be completed within a defined period of time.

Can you earn college credit through a CBE program?

  • In CBE’s course-based learning model traditional courses are taken online and self-paced with in-home proctored assessments.
  • Students are provided with study materials and pay a fee to take competency-based exams.
  • Prior Learning Assessments (PLA) is another option to earn credit. With support from advisors, students develop essays or portfolios that show how their previous experiences match the material taught in a particular course.

What are interactions like with faculty and peers?

  • Students have good access to subject expert tutors and program support advisors that help them develop and maintain their academic plans.
  • CBEs require student participation in online discussion boards, program communities and learning communities.