Almost a year has passed since Eduventures published Deconstructing CBE: An Assessment of Institutional Activity, Goals and Challenges in Higher Education, the first of three reports exploring the prospects for broader adoption of competency-based education (CBE). As we publish our second annual report, Deconstructing CBE: Portraits of Institutional Practice, the outlook for CBE remains mixed.

Deconstructing CBE: Portraits of Institutional Practice
Deconstructing CBE: Portraits of Institutional Practice

Eduventures, Ellucian, and the American Council on Education (ACE) have teamed up for their second annual review of competency based education.

Despite the compelling logic of liberating learning from seat time, and of recognizing the value of work and life experiences, most higher education CBE programs remain nascent, highly localized and of limited size. Apparently, quick and easy solutions for the CBE Rubik’s cube remain elusive on most U.S. campuses. But, as is the case with the beloved puzzle, some efforts to “solve” CBE continue to attract a wide range of players while others may be headed to the sidelines.

Here are some positive and less-than-positive CBE developments since the beginning of 2017:

  • Several well-known and established providers of CBE programming have reported positive growth:
    • Capella University grew its FlexPath program to over 4,000 students;
    • University of Wisconsin’s Flexible Options program grew to 1,300 students, a 42% annual increase;
    • Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America has reorganized in anticipation of doubling its enrollment to nearly 11,000 by 2018;
    • CBE powerhouse Western Governors University now enrolls about 80,000 students, and reported an 18% increase in graduates between 2015 and 2016.
  • In February, Ellucian decided to sunset its CBE product, Brainstorm, after limited market growth. According to Ellucian, prospects for large-scale adoptions of CBE appeared to be more remote than earlier forecasts.
  • In April, Brandman University, acquired Sagence Learning, an LMS marketed as a full suite CBE solution. A review of tax data and business analytics suggests that despite raising significant capital and launching an aggressive marketing campaign, Sagence ran into some stiff market headwinds.
  • In May, the go-to organization promoting CBE, C-BEN, released a set of quality and performance standards. In June, C-BEN announced it was offering a tiered membership structure ranging from $500 – $10,000 for any institution wishing to join the 30 existing invited members.
  • Despite a season of political discord, a bipartisan bill supporting research and development of new CBE programs was introduced in the House of Representatives in early June, co-sponsored by Republican Luke Messer of Indiana, and Democrat Jarid Polis of Colorado. H.R. 2859 – The Advancing Competency-Based Education Act of 2017 is the first such effort since the failure of a similar 2014 bill that passed the House but died in the Senate. Although the odds for passage are slim, H.R. 2859 would allocate $5M to fund up to 100 new CBE programs. As of late July, the bill had attracted nine additional Democrat cosponsors.

Evidence from Eduventures’ 2017 CBE Research

What does the future hold for CBE? For most schools, will it remain an unsolvable puzzle?

Eduventures’ 2017 report highlights seven schools where CBE has evolved beyond an experimental phase but remains quite small scale to date. With the exception of one wholly online school, these portraits explore CBE at the program and course level. These portraits may resonate with the typical rather than exceptional school. Rather than focus only on programs that have been successful from their inception, we’ve shed light on how administrators, program directors, faculty, and in some cases students, have conspired to solve the CBE Rubik’s cube.

Deconstructing CBE: Portraits of Institutional Practice features the following schools:

  • New Charter University
  • Lipscomb University
  • Texas A&M University-Commerce
  • Valdosta State University
  • Thomas Edison State University
  • Kirkwood Community College
  • Salt Lake Community College

What elements of institutional readiness do these schools share? What can be learned from how these schools responded to the invariable challenges of CBE development? Based on more than thirty hours of interviews with faculty, students and staff from these seven schools, we have identified some answers. For a variety of reasons, these schools have been able to not only nurture the emergence of CBE, but have persisted long enough to generate data and insights that drive continuous improvement.

A Solvable Rubik’s Cube

CBE remains hard work; it challenges many institutional norms concerning course development, instruction and assessment. In that sense, it is not surprising that few mainstream schools have made great strides or achieved institution-wide impact. Like any puzzle, however, CBE can be solved through patience, planning, and perseverance. The question is whether the model is a good fit for the average student, and whether the benefits are worth the cost for the average institution.

Our research suggests that schools that continue to explore the value of CBE, even despite initial setbacks, will reap long-term insights and benefits. After years of quantitative and qualitative research, Eduventures anticipates that CBE development and growth will depend on local conditions, institutional expertise, and how schools respond to the inevitable challenges of program development.

CBE is unlikely to become a one-size-fits-all solution. Although this may be problematic for vendors seeking to influence a new market, it accurately reflects both the potential and complexity of CBE as a higher education innovation.

To download and read Eduventures 2017 CBE report, Deconstructing CBE: Portraits of Institutional Practice click here.