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The State of Competency-Based Education.

The headlines are staggering: “Undergraduate Enrollment Continues its Slide” (Williams-June, 2021); “5 Ways Higher Ed Will Be Upended” (Levine and Van Pelt, 2021); “Surviving Among the Giants” (Carlson, 2021); and “Community Colleges Try to Claw Their Way Back” (Gardner, 2021). Community colleges must pivot in the wake of a generation-defining pandemic, decreasing enrollment, and the requisite loss of revenue. To do so while also maintaining the integrity of the product and its throughput of a well-rounded citizenry is equally critical.

Today, dear reader, we are going to explore the potential for higher education, through its community colleges, to adequately respond to the marketplace demand for highly-skilled, well-rounded doers and thinkers. A particular nuance to the community college response involves improved service delivery to a marketplace of learners and employers clamoring for a unicorn: high-quality education delivered on-demand in as short a period as possible. The market demand can be realized through a familiar concept rooted in theory and developed in practice: competency-based education (CBE). Ultimately, the need for CBE is less about the finer points of learning objectives, rubrics, and personalized mentoring than it is about a powerful confluence of expectations, urgency, decreasing value of traditional pedagogy, and technological innovation.

Understanding Competency-Based Education


Despite the self-descriptive nature of its title and relatively long pedagogical history, CBE lacks an agreed-upon definition (Le et al., 2014). Gervais (2016) notes that CBE first appears in language embedded in the Morrill Land-Acts of 1862, which provided for “applied education oriented to the needs of farm and townspeople who could not attend the more exclusive and prestigious universities and colleges of the eastern United States” (p.99). Yet, one hundred fifty years after the passage of the Morrill Act and much research, Le et al. (2014) note that CBE still languishes with a “definition under construction” (p.3) devoid of a universally agreed-upon classification or assessments.

For example, some education researchers agree that CBE is outcomes-based yet disagree on measuring those outcomes. Le et al. (2014) identify an outcomes-based approach where one proves mastery through “grades or numeric averages coupled with time-based accountability” (p.3). However, Gervais (2016) defines CBE as “an outcomes-based approach that measures mastery of learning through demonstration of the knowledge” (p.99) rather than prescribed seat time.

There are, however, several elements of CBE upon which the experts agree, including the idea noted by Le et al. (2014) that CBE is a “student-centered approach that leads to better college, career, and civic outcomes” (p.3). Moreover, unlike traditional academic models, CBE typically includes awarding academic credit within a program of specific competencies and measurable learning objectives that demonstrate mastery (Cohen et al., 2014; Gervais, 2016; Nodine and Johnstone, 2015; Wyne et al., 2021).

Regardless of rhetorical nuance, the concept of curriculum directed at learning rather than instruction is CBE’s shared framework. Rooted in behaviorist and humanistic learning theories, CBE focuses on learning objectives and the “specific behaviors a student needs to demonstrate competency” (Gervais, 2016, p.99). Le et al. (2014) encourage educators to consider three elements: mastery, pacing, and instruction to align learning objectives properly.

According to Le et al. (2014), these three elements involve layered progression through modules at the student’s pace according to “customized supports” (p.4). In their report for the Competency-Based Education Network, Bushway et al. (2017) use those same elements to encourage a standards-based curriculum centered on “clear, measurable, meaningful, and integrated competencies” (p.10). Thus, CBE exists when students demonstrate, and instructors assess, mastery of subject material that balances theory and application (Bushway et al., 2017; Cohen et al., 2014; Gervais, 2016; Le et al., 2014; Wyne et al., 2021).


For community colleges, CBE represents a powerful opportunity throughout applied technology and occupational programs as it allows a student to master one applied skill at a time measured against rubric-measured learning objectives (Wyne et al., 2021). CBE practices, therefore, are most often tied to occupational certificate programs targeted for employment rather than general education courses (Cohen et al., 2014). Because of its traditional focus on workforce alignment, Cohen et al. (2014) note that incorporating CBE into undergraduate liberal arts programs remains a challenge. The lack of a liberal arts deployment strategy coupled with the still-dominant notion that “time in class” (Cohen et al., 2014, p.190) drives curriculum are primary constraints.

Nodine and Johnstone (2015) provide research that suggests the lack of CBE incorporation within liberal arts programs resides with an uneasy faculty and an infrastructure slow to adapt to a self-paced modality. In particular, Prokes et al. (2021) note faculty concerns over their changing role from classroom leader to a facilitator. This change, from “traditional content experts to mentors or guides” (Prokes et al., 2021, p.2), can result in faculty becoming disconnected from their pedagogical training and the requisite disconnect from student learning. Moreover, this shift in responsibilities often raises academic quality, rigor, and assessment concerns. CBE integrates several approaches upon which relatively few agree, including assessment strategies (Gallardo, 2020). The lack of consensus on how to align curriculum and assessments across community college systems weakens the credibility of CBE and fuels discontent among instructors hesitant to change.

Moving forward, higher education administrators will need to work closely with instructors and curriculum designers to agree on assessment strategies. For example, rubrics can be challenging to design but ultimately must be “simple, clear, accurate, consistent, and flexible” (Gallardo, 2020, p.63). Gallardo (2020) notes that over 40 years of intense research has concluded that rubrics are a “powerful way to assess and give feedback” (p.64). While they are not the only strategy to measure competency, rubrics provide a well-developed and researched foundation from which CBE assessment strategies can build. If administrators are to succeed in convincing a reluctant instructor-corps into adopting CBE strategies, they will do well to involve them in designing the most critical component: assessment.

Market Fluctuation

Dissatisfaction with the Status Quo

Fearing a slipping competitive edge in the global marketplace, policy leaders in the United States have renewed their focus on postsecondary credentials. For example, in 2009, President Barack Obama set a ten-year goal for America to “lead the world in the share of its population with a college degree or certificate” (Nodine and Johnstone, 2015, p.61). Doubling down on the importance of educational attainment, then-Vice President Joe Biden (2014) wrote that “Career readiness needs to start early. Too few of America’s students are exposed to learning that links their studies in school to future college and career pathways.”

Unfortunately, the political demand for credentialing does not solve as many problems as it hopes to. For example, D’Amico et al. (2015) reveal businesses in America that are not satisfied with college graduates. They note a Gallup report where only “11 percent of business leaders strongly agree that ‘higher education institutions in this country are graduating students with the skills and competencies that my business needs” (D’Amico et al., 2015, p.191). Similar disheartening statistics are found in a 2019 Gallup Poll showing a 19 percent decline (70% to 51%) between 2013-2019 in Americans who place a high value on a college degree (Levine and Van Pelt, 2021).

This dissatisfaction with higher education can be mainly attributed to poorly aligned curriculum, cost increases, inconvenient instruction delivery (e.g., location and time), and impatience with traditional models of seat-time assessment (Cohen et al., 2014; Levine and Van Pelt, 2021; Nodine and Johnstone, 2015). Instead, students of the 2020s are digital natives who prefer asynchronous and remote delivery with “pay as you go” (Levine and Van Pelt, 2021, p.3) options. Moreover, students and employers alike are looking for relevant and industry-aligned curricula centered on learning outcomes rather than processes.

Pandemic Impact

The COVID-19 global pandemic has complicated matters for higher education administrators, staff, faculty, and students. However, as Levine and Van Pelt (2021) note, “the pre-pandemic state of higher education was in flux” (p.2), and the COVID-19 crisis simply accelerated the need to respond to student demands. For example, online learning platforms like Coursera have successfully delivered online, career-oriented courses over the last ten years (Levine and Van Pelt, 2021). As Gardner (2021) points out, the pandemic “manifested and magnified” (p.1) the need for higher education to respond to advances in technology and market needs.

One such school, Southwest Community College in Tennessee, saw post-pandemic enrollment for their Spring 2021 semester fall by 68% (Gardner, 2021). And even though their Fall 2021 enrollment numbers increased, the overall headcount at that community college fell significantly. Naturally, as problematic for Southwest CC administrators as enrollment concerns is the requisite budget shortfall of $10 million, representing over 15% of their annual budget (Gardner, 2021).

Overall, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) reports a 6.5% decline in college enrollment during the pandemic (Williams-June, 2021). Community Colleges, which often experience enrollment spikes during economic downturns, saw no such surge. In fact, according to the NSCRC, community colleges lost over 14% of their enrollment - the most dramatic decrease across the higher education spectrum (Williams-June, 2021).

While the research of pandemic-related enrollment challenges is, at this still early stage, incomplete, anecdotal evidence suggests traditional community college students are unable or unwilling to attend in-person courses in a brick and mortar facility at pre-pandemic levels. Instead, these students must tend to a series of family-related challenges that require flexibility. Whether these potential students need to care for children, search for employment, or respond to their health issues, the idea of returning to school full-time has taken a back seat (Levine and Van Pelt, 2021; Williams-June, 2021).

Employer Needs

Recent workforce opinion research conducted by Blumenstyk (2019) on behalf of the Chronicle of Higher Education can help community college administrators address present enrollment, retention, and completion concerns by better understanding private-sector expectations. After all, we know that it is essential for community colleges, especially in the applied technology or occupational certificate programs, to align curriculum and outcomes with the skills industry requires (Blumenstyk, 2019; Bushway et al., 2017; Cohen et al., 2014; Howell et al., 2019).

A review of recent research yields interesting data in which only “54% of employers agree that associate or bachelor’s degrees are reliable representations of candidates’ skills and knowledge” (Blumenstyk, 2019, p.18). Yet, over 76% of employers agree that “degree completion is a valuable signal of perseverance and self-direction” (Blumenstyk, 2019, p.19). This juxtaposition is the perfect space for a community college to shine. For example, the overwhelming majority of Americans value a degree for the developmental pace it demands of students. Yet, they don’t respect the skills that come out of a degree program. In addition to public opinion research, Blumenstyk (2019) notes the significant gap in middle-skill attainment. Right now, in America, middle-skill jobs, which require postsecondary credentialling short of a bachelor’s degree account for over 50% of all employment opportunities, and “20% of those jobs are unfilled” (p.9).

The direction from the marketplace could not be any more precise, and higher education needs to improve the relevance of its programs. If not, and perhaps no matter what, corporate America stands ready to fill the void itself. For example, Google has developed its own online, CBE-based certificate in information technology (IT) support (Ostrye et al., 2021). Their IT program incorporates “modularized content using short videos and vignettes, interactive exercises, assessments, reading, communication and problem-solving” (Ostrye et al., 2021, p.5). A significant result of their program is that graduates are ready for entry-level employment at any technology company. Community colleges would be wise to partner with innovative corporate partners like Google to broadly leverage and scale resources.

Colleges Respond

Amid the pandemic-inspired market upheaval, the Belk Center for Community College Leadership’s Pamela Eddy (in Gardner, 2021) encourages schools to embrace the convergence of variables on market demand to make overdue changes. At many institutions, the incorporation of CBE strategies addresses student and employer demand for relevant education delivered in various formats. Some community colleges, particularly in Indiana, Florida, Ohio, Texas, and Washington, have worked on CBE strategies for several years (Nodine and Johnstone, 2015). Others, like Nashville State Community College (NSCC) are embracing CBE in direct response to a pandemic-inspired enrollment drop (Brown, 2021).

Nationwide, statistics from the National Survey of Postsecondary Competency-Based Education (Mason et al., 2020) show that 13% of all colleges incorporate at least some form of CBE curriculum into their programs, and an astounding 73% are either in the process of adopting CBE or will within the next 12 months. The report also shows that colleges now, more than ever, recognize the long-term ramifications on higher education from market demand and “optimism about the future growth of CBE is high” (Mason et al., 2020, p.46). For example, in a study of all higher education administrators in the United States, “84% of respondents said they expected CBE to grow nationally” (Mason et al., 2020, p.42).

In Nashville, Tennessee, NSCC takes advantage of a federal grant which pays for its faculty to receive training on CBE (Brown, 2021). Instructors at NSCC have used that training to deliver an innovative approach for their technology programs where “students will have competencies they must master before moving on to the next module” (Brown, 2021, p.2). Because of the instructors’ engagement and quality programming, tech companies across middle Tennessee partner with NSCC and hire students directly upon graduation. A key talking point for NSCC involves available instruction options. For example, rather than offering one type of delivery system, the school offers a mix of traditional programs, CBE programs, in-person courses, hybrid classes, and online systems (Brown, 2021). Because of NSCC’s ability to pivot to market demand and engage faculty with training, their enrollment is up, and graduates are employed in a booming tech sector (Brown, 2021).

Predictions for CBE: 2022 and Beyond

Research and trends presented in this paper shed light on the power of CBE to help community colleges adapt to pressure from students and employers. Students and employers are looking for accredited, relevant education delivered in various ways and with customized support services. Yet, any modification of traditional practices will take leadership, time, and stakeholder buy-in. With a stakeholder group of students, faculty, staff, administration, local businesses, policymakers, and education partners, it’s no wonder process updates in higher education institutions take so long.

As transformative as CBE is, it will not be meaningfully scaled across liberal arts programs until schools correct current imperfections in CBE delivery in occupational certificate programs. However, there appears to be pandemic-renewed patience with higher education delivery, and I predict the resolution of the faculty buy-in and assessment issues will inspire administrators to cross-walk CBE throughout their programs. In the short term, the middle-skill gap identified by Blumenstyk (2019) will compel administrators to focus on foundational issues in the current CBE model with occupational certificate programs. I also predict that new leadership at community colleges will understand the value of teamwork and drive change through the expertise of faculty and staff.

Data and commentary also lead to my prediction of widespread expansion for CBE (Mason et al., 2020). More schools will follow the model set by NSCC and UVU to broaden their delivery options and leverage technology to deliver CBE and assess learning (Brown, 2021). Similarly, colleges will find innovative ways to marry their systems to innovative corporate-driven programming like Google’s IT certificate course (Ostrye et al., 2021).

Finally, I predict that colleges will engage an equity lens to view all necessary tasks to deliver quality CBE. Community college leaders will ensure that students across all racial, gender, socioeconomic, or developmental have equal opportunities and tools for success. Over the next five years, community college leaders will leverage the pandemic to build coalitions that help shape the deployment of a carefully considered, high-quality CBE delivery system. Results will include universal adoption of CBE offerings across the pk-20 system throughout the country.


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