CBE Today: Who Else Besides the Usual Suspects?

There is little doubt about higher education’s increased interest in competency-based education (CBE): 97% of schools recently surveyed by Eduventures say they are at least interested in CBE. Despite this chorus of interest, and outside of a handful of established providers, CBE implementation is diverse and generally limited to programs and courses.

This gap has left critically important questions unanswered: What are the prospects for broader impact and scale of CBE?  Can institutions customize CBE, combining some program components and ignoring others? Can CBE, as its proponents claim, enable more institutions to attract and retain non-traditional learners and enhance prospects for long-term employability? Is the sector on the brink of a CBE revolution or might it quietly return to the margins of higher education?

Today, Eduventures addresses these questions with the publication of “Deconstructing CBE: An Assessment of Institutional Activity, Goals, and Challenges in Higher Education.” The hour for putting a finger high in the wind has passed; instead, it’s time for schools to recognize CBE’s complexities and chart their own implementation. This study provides the findings, clarity, and insights needed for this task.

“Deconstructing CBE” is based on responses from 251 higher education institutions, representing one of the largest studies of CBE to date. Eduventures created this study in partnership with Ellucian, a leading global provider of higher education software and services, and the American Council on Education (ACE), one the nation’s most influential and respected higher education associations.

Why Deconstruct CBE?

Recent surveys, questionnaires, and webinars have documented a growing awareness of CBE among many U.S. colleges and universities. While useful in assessing interest, these have not delivered a systematic analysis of how institutions design and implement CBE at the course, program, or institutional level. “Deconstructing CBE” has been designed to eliminate this gap and accelerate an industry-wide conversation on the scale, impact, and varieties of CBE.

Our 2016 survey data reveals that CBE is implemented in diverse ways and across a spectrum of schools.  Rather than a single, dominant version of CBE, schools are deploying a variety of CBE components to meet specific institutional challenges. A portrait of CBE emerges as a menu of tools and practices, rather than a monolithic approach or a linear path toward institution-wide adoption. As our report demonstrates, these findings underscore the need for institutions to carefully weigh the pros and cons of CBE implementation and to proactively select which CBE components make the most sense for their students and mission.

How Did We Deconstruct CBE?

Our 2016 survey asked institutional leaders to share a significant range of details regarding the CBE strategies and operations at their institutions. Rather than simply collect more CBE data, Eduventures and its research partners determined that schools need something more than a typical survey report. As a result, Eduventures developed a purpose-built scoring model, providing each responding institution with a benchmark report designed to assess their relative progress and to help them plan for broader CBE scale. These reports will measure progress both in absolute terms and in relation to overall goals and a peer group.

As is often the case, survey data alone can only tell part of the story. Based on the 2016 survey results and the scoring model, Eduventures has also developed three institutional portraits designed to highlight the diverse ways in which schools implement CBE. Each of these portraits represents schools that have developed CBE programs designed to address specific challenges in ways that can prove instructive to other institutions.

  1. University of Maine, Presque Isle (UMPI): Cohort-Driven, Online and Blended Learning for Full-time, First-time Students. UMPI is a small, regional public university focused on strengthening retention and completion rates through enhanced support services. UMPI uses CBE as a tool to support the transition from high school to college, and in face-to-face, blended, and online settings.
  2. Salt Lake Community College (SLCC): Self-paced, Blended, Workforce-readiness for Underserved Students. SLCC is a large community college serving a diverse adult population. SLCC has implemented CBE in face-to-face and blended courses focused on providing technically-oriented certificates and associate degrees. SLCC uses CBE in more than 10 of its certificate and degree programs within its School of Applied Technology.
  3. Valdosta State University (VSU): Self-paced and Blended Learning for STEM Teacher Professional Development. VSU is a regional public university serving southwest Georgia. Its CBE programs emphasize employer-driven outcomes and self-paced learning to improve employability. VSU offers CBE programming to area teachers seeking licensure endorsements in STEM.

Much Ado About Nothing?

Findings suggest that while established CBE-dominant institutions may continue to expand their programs, the diversity and complexity of CBE will compel more institutions to seek customizable implementation models. Prospects for long-term, scalable, and sustainable growth for CBE will depend on the collective ability of institutions to shape CBE into courses, programs, and degree pathways that solve local and immediate problems. The complex palette of CBE has the potential to enhance higher education. On the other hand, if hundreds of schools and thousands of leaders and practitioners fail to recognize this challenge, chaos may ensue. With it, we could see the end of another chapter of failed education innovation.

Over the next two years, Eduventures will continue to examine the prospects for broader implementation and growth of CBE. Institutions are encouraged to participate in the remaining two years of this study, during which Eduventures will develop detailed portraits of promising CBE implementation models. A capstone, national survey in 2018 will follow.

Understanding CBE is not a Spectator Sport

There are ways your school or company can make use of our 2016 survey and its findings: