As the 21st century nears the two-decade mark, more than 90% of degree or certificate granting colleges and universities remain wedded to an idea first introduced alongside the birth of the flush toilet, typesetting, and the curtain rod. We speak, of course, of the oddly persistent credit hour, a.k.a. the Carnegie unit, a 1906 innovation developed by the Carnegie Institution for the Advancement of Teaching in order to design a sustainable pension system for a growing population of college teachers.

This curious state of affairs is just one insight to be derived from Eduventures’ most recent study of competency-based education (CBE), State of the Field, Findings from the 2018 National Survey of Postsecondary CBE (NSPCBE). The NSPCBE reveals that schools seeking to measure academic progress based on the mastery of competencies, rather than the accumulation of credit hours, remain few and far between.

For now, the verdict is in: CBE remains an intriguing but largely marginalized innovation .

Created in a new collaboration between Eduventures and the American Institutes for Research® (AIR), the NSPCBE represents the largest survey of postsecondary CBE implementation and interest to date. It includes responses from leaders and academic directors at 500 schools with existing CBE programs or with plans to build future programs. For Eduventures, it marks the completion of three years of research into CBE, funded by Ellucian®, for AIR it represents the first of three years of new research, funded by the Lumina™ Foundation.

CBE Today: Small but Optimistic

Eduventures and AIR designed the NSPCBE to inform institutional leaders, faculty, and policymakers of how and why CBE is being implemented, and what obstacles await schools hoping to build new programs. Through this lens, CBE emerges as not only a potentially effective innovation for adult and non-traditional learners focused on securing employment, but one that remains on the fringe of mainstream higher education.

As the NSPCBE reveals, outside of a few large, well-known CBE-centric schools, most program enrollment remains nascent. We asked institutions with functioning CBE programs to report enrollment. As was the case in Eduventures’ 2016 study, evidence strongly suggests that among two- and four-year schools, most programs enroll fewer than 50 students. Figure 1 shows the percent of institutions by undergraduate enrollment; this pattern was also consistent for graduate enrollment.

 

Reported Undergraduate Enrollment in Active CBE Programs: Share of Institutions in Enrollment Size CategoriesFigure 1.

 

The NSPCBE also asked schools what factors had either hindered or helped the growth of their existing CBE programs. Notably, this “hindered or helped” spectrum is broad, and includes factors that are both within and beyond the control of an individual institution. While schools may be eager and able to strengthen faculty perception of CBE, they remain unable to exert much influence over federal aid regulations and policies.

The 2018 findings also suggest that many schools remain unsure about whether key factors, such as student demand, start-up costs, regulations, and the efficacy of CBE might help or hinder further program growth (Figure 2).

 

To what extent is the adoption of CBE at your institution helped or hindered by the following factors?Figure 2.

 

Despite patterns of low enrollment and a plethora of factors impacting growth, respondents to the NSPCBE express confidence that brighter days lie ahead for CBE. Seventy-five percent of 2018 respondents expect CBE to significantly grow within the next five years, either at their own schools or nationally. This finding is consistent with Eduventures’ 2016 and 2017 CBE studies.

What does this optimism signal? In part, it reflects a growing recognition by both practitioners and observers that CBE still has the potential to radically improve the effectiveness of support for working adult students. At the very least, evidence from three years of research suggests that CBE’s compelling logic and the buoyed optimism of its practitioners will keep it at the center of debates over how, when, and why higher education can continue to evolve.

What’s next for CBE?

Results from the NSPCBE come just as the federal Education Department (ED) embarks on a new round of negotiated rulemaking, commonly known as “neg-reg.” The intent of any neg-reg process is to engage a broad community of stakeholders in an attempt to build consensus around a redefinition of essential policies and procedures.

Notably, the initial rounds of neg-reg have included a re-examination of the credit hour and direct assessment, both central to CBE. This has begun as the chances for a timely reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) have vanished.

At the same time, the ED has recently rejected the guidance of its own Inspector General’s office, concluding that CBE giant Western Governors University (WGU) did not violate the regular and substantive interaction requirements of the distance learning regulations. Rather than refund the ED $713 million, as requested by the ED’s Inspector General, WGU will only have to pay back a nominal $2,500, largely due to an administrative error. While this decision was not unexpected, an audible sigh of relief could be heard across WGU’s offices.

These are not random occurrences, nor is it inconsequential that CBE remains central to these debates. Despite its marginalization, CBE implementation foreshadows – like a barometer measuring the weather – how higher education policies and practices can adapt to new circumstances and shifting demographics. Within programs large or small, CBE continues to enable schools and policy makers to test out a range of stubborn but valuable questions:

  • Can program innovation in higher education effectively coexist alongside necessary consumer protection measures?
  • Will a redefinition of what some have termed the “inhibitive” credit hour advance student achievement or erode quality?
  • Can the “regular and substantive interaction” requirements governing Title IV access be effectively revised to reflect new trends in teaching and learning?

While the prospects for a CBE renaissance are slim, there is little doubt that it will remain an essential proving ground for how higher education practices and policies might evolve.

Download your version of the 2018 NSPCBE report below.

2018 National Survey of Postsecondary Competency-Based Education

Competency-Based Education (CBE) programs have attracted great interest across higher education over the last decade. These learner-centered programs are designed to teach students particular competencies, and students advance through a program based on demonstrated mastery of a competency rather than on credit hours or grades.

The survey was co-led by AIR and Eduventures, the research division of ACT | NRCCUA.

Here are six key findings from the survey:

  1. Motivations for adoption: Institutions see CBE as a way to serve nontraditional students and improve workforce readiness.
  2. Scope of adoption:  Many institutions’ adoption activities fall short of full CBE programming.
  3. Scale of enrollment:  Most CBE programs currently serve relatively small numbers of students.
  4. Faculty role: Faculty are still fulfilling a broad range of roles in active CBE programs.
  5. Barriers to implementation: Perceived barriers to CBE implementation represent both internal and external factors.
  6. Future of CBE: Most institutions are optimistic about the future of CBE.

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