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Is Competency-Based Education Really the Magic Bullet?

  • 8 Min Read

Schools without CBE programs may struggle to compete against institutions with more personalized paths to graduation. In this post, check out how competency-based education will become the norm for all of U.S. higher education.


Around 2010, I was the Chief Academic Officer for higher education at a massive learning company. As such, I was regularly part of conversations with ministers of education, presidents, provosts, superintendents and more. But between 2010 and 2012, I also participated in meetings and had several fascinating conversations with people at the U.S. Department of Education. During those interactions, my colleagues and I consistently heard the following notion from several DOE stakeholders:

“Within 10 years, competency-based education will be the norm for all of U.S. higher education.”

Now, there’s a lot of obvious misjudgment in that sentiment, but before I go there, let me first try to describe the reasoning behind it.

CBE as a Transformative Agent

To many political leaders, competency-based education (CBE) can function as a powerful economic engine that was largely impossible until the marriage of technology, instruction, and assessment made it possible. As described by Derek Bok in 2013’s Higher Education in America, CBE has its appeal:

[S]tudents gain the necessary credits, not by completing a certain number of class hours and passing an exam, but by demonstrating the requisite competence in various prescribed skills or tasks. Under this system, students can proceed at their own pace, and those who have gained the necessary skill through previous experience or who can master the necessary competencies in a shorter period of time can graduate sooner at less cost to themselves and to the taxpayer. Proponents claim that employers will gain by being able to read transcripts and tell what college graduates can do, not merely how many hours they have sat in different classrooms (p. 114).

As you can see, CBE could finally deal with the juxtaposition of the credit hour being conflated with something meaningful in terms of learning versus what we know about how a brain actually learns. At the same time, CBE may hold the promise of finally bringing educational costs down. The state where I live (Colorado), like most U.S. states, has experienced year-over-year tuition increases three to five times that of inflation for the past 50 years. Just in the past decade, according to local reporting of information shared by the College Board, tuition at two-year institutions, adjusted for inflation, rose by 30%, while four-year tuition costs rose 36%. A system of learning that allows students to move through competencies at a significantly faster rate could finally ease the burden of tuition costs on families, even if institutions charge nominal fees for competency checks and assessments.

Using CBE to Promote Consistency

While writing this column, I decided to contact an old colleague and friend who worked for almost 18 years with an ePortfolio company. He was on the CBE “front lines” up until 2021, when he finally felt so defeated by the academic establishment that he left for another line of work entirely. Despite most academics’ unfamiliarity with CBE, the shortage of competency-based programs in the world today, and the upfront work involved in creating CBL programs and courses, I wanted to ask him one big question: “Why CBE in 2021? Is it still important?”

He responded quickly (and with tremendous passion, I might add). He explained that genuine CBE architecture leads to much more academic consistency. He immediately described his two daughters’ experiences in high school math. They attend the same school, use the same book, and have the same “curriculum.” Yet one daughter’s teacher assesses completely differently, utilizing assets and examples that are fundamentally unique to her class, and as a result gave that daughter a far greater depth and breadth of understanding of Algebra I than her sibling. (Both girls enjoy math, for what it’s worth, but came out of the exact same curriculum with very different abilities to perform math.)

Similarly, it reminded me of an argument I once heard whereby the President of a consortia of community colleges debated the merits of students taking Composition I over the summer at one of his colleges versus taking it at the state university. The Provost of the university was adamant that students would not get the same “learning” at the cheaper, “easier” community college. The consortia President provided statistics and examples that both environments prepared students to the same “minimally viable education” product, but the Provost was not having it. (That was, until the consortia President produced the list of professors at the local community colleges. There was a healthy overlap of professors teaching at the university and the community college.)

The point is, our curriculum in K–20 instances is filled with the germane information that students need in order to be successful. But every instance of every class is also filled with curriculum drift: the stuff that has come along since the curriculum was first created that is also important, or more specifically is believed to be important by the instructor or designer. Unfortunately, that new content is typically shoehorned into the existing content with no consideration of adding time and little consideration of what to remove. Add to that curriculum bloat—the stuff teachers often add individually to keep the content fresh, interesting, or novel to them, the expert who may be bored with the novice concepts covered over and over again. These are the stories, videos, and interesting analogies that may (or may not) help students understand better.

So, if you consider the number of educators who do not actually worry about the outcomes/standards defined by the program, and the amount of content that is added to the important and necessary curriculum, and then add in the hundreds of variables learners bring to the equation, which include motivation, attention, focus, tenacity, doubt, etc., you can see that educational courses are rife with inconsistency. CBE, which requires use of rubrics and performance indicators, might prove to be a superior “map” to get everyone closer to center and to help students get more of the germane content they need in order to succeed.

The Complete Guide to Competency-Based Education

CBE is helping schools, institutions and organizations deliver learning experiences that translate to practical, provable outcomes and true skill mastery.

Read the blog

So, is CBE the Magic Bullet?

As noted, CBE is not currently the primary vehicle for learning across any level of K–20. But why would that be? Based on all of these fantastic outputs, why has it not dominated the current education landscape? Why did all of the resources and attention from powerful advocates like the U.S. DOE fall short of making CBE the main learning context for education?

The first, and likely most obvious, answer is that this method of instruction, assessment, and learning is quite different from what most practitioners have seen before. The DOE stakeholders’ premonitions about CBE feel like the prognostication that by 2025, one-half of the cars on the road will be self-driving. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that various tech writers and companies overreached when they suggested that several years back. The self-driving car is not an incremental change for drivers; it is a fundamental and profound adjustment. Surveys suggest that autonomous vehicles are perceived as scary and dangerous to many, despite the statistics suggesting otherwise.

Similarly, educators struggle mightily to give up what is known, even if it is not working or ideal.

CBE came to feel promising largely because of technological enablement. It is almost impossible to leverage genuine competency-based learning without a system that can capture, path, assess, and distinguish the learner journey as filtered by everything from competencies to rubrics to outcomes. This is likely why products like D2L Brightspace are really the best choice for implementing CBE in the market today. Unlike D2L, other LMS companies decided to worry about the “minimally viable education” product and did not focus on the transformative nature of CBE due to the lack of early adoption.

Finally, it would be disingenuous to say that CBE is not complex or hard. It’s not an easy model to create, especially out of a traditional framework. In some courses, competencies simply do not make much sense, as it can be hard to distinguish between satisfactory and insufficient competence (think of the humanities). At the same time, practitioners must determine whether they seek proficiency prior to mastery, and making those nuances objective can be challenging. Just as program and course outcomes are defined differently by educators today, moving content into even more measurable “chunks” takes communication and work, sometimes across deep silos that punctuate most institutions. And finally, the easy, one-to-one connection between education and jobs may not be quite so easy. While various groups and even governments have identified competency codes that should make hiring (and the supported education leading to hiring) easier, this is not always the case. Even in nursing, engineering, or other skills-based careers, there are nuance and context that do not necessarily translate exactly as desired.


The point here is that schools (K–20) that want to get ahead may well want to get back on the CBE train. Going back to our autonomous car idea, while they may not take over the roads in the next four years, they very well might in the next 15!

The same goes for CBE. Sooner than you might think, we will see a pedagogical shift more widespread than what’s happening at Western Governor’s University, SNHU, and the state of Kentucky, all of which are notably transforming education through CBE. And just as we saw institutions floundering because they were completely unprepared for distance education during the pandemic, we will start to see schools struggle to compete against institutions that have implemented a more personalized, pertinent path to graduation.

Good luck and good learning.

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Table of Contents

  1. CBE as a Transformative Agent
  2. Using CBE to Promote Consistency
  3. So, is CBE the Magic Bullet?
  4. Summary