First Steps in Creating a CBE Framework

Karli Grant

Director of Product Marketing, Campus Management

Today, factors beyond skill deficits are driving the demand for competency-based education (CBE). Traditional and nontraditional students alike are looking for faster, more flexible, and more cost effective ways to achieve their academic goals. At the same time, institutions facing declining enrollments and retention rates are looking at CBE as a way to attract more students and keep them on track for graduation.

Institutions with a focus on mentoring, apprentice-based and vocational learning have embraced the CBE model since its inception, but many schools with a variety of academic programs are now exploring the possibility of offering competency-based courses.

For the many colleges and universities currently testing the waters, the question is “where do we start?” Below are four questions to consider as you take the first steps in creating a competency-based education framework.

In what career fields or academic programs are you seeing the most student demand for CBE?

Institutions should look for areas that allow students with real-world experience to be assessed for competencies. Many adult students are looking for formal validation of skills they’ve already acquired. Business, medical and allied health programs, technology, and graphic design are among the most common fields selected for competency-based study, but any programs that allow students to demonstrate mastery of skills are good candidates.

While these more hands-on programs are popular options for CBE curriculum, the potential exists to transform traditional liberal arts courses into CBE offerings. Courses focused on analytical thinking, effective written and verbal communication skills, providing constructive feedback, and entrepreneurial and innovative thinking can be transformed into effective competency-based learning opportunities.

When deciding to move forward with CBE, establish a rubric for identifying suitable programs, one that asks:

  • Are there already established programs out there that people might recognize, that provide a built-in level of awareness and validation?
  • Are there areas that might differentiate the college and serve as a competitive advantage?
  • What types of students might be involved in these programs? Is it a mature student that might be more independent or a newer student who might need more support and guidance?
  • From an operational perspective, what would allow us to experiment on a small scale initially, and then scale if we want to broaden to more students and programs?

Is there a national standard or model for CBE assessments?

There is no national standard or model for CBE assessments, so institutions need to determine the right types of rubrics to demonstrate skill mastery for the CBE programs being considered. A look at current CBE programs reveals very different approaches to competency-based assessment, with options that include performance-based, portfolio-based, or project-based assessments as well as multiple-choice exams.

A competency-based framework offers an institution the opportunity to redesign not only its curriculum, but its traditional teaching roles as well. To accomplish this, though, faculty should be consulted early in the development of programs and assessment standards. To provide the greatest innovation in CBE programs, institutions should consider leveraging multiple types and modes of instruction, multimedia learning materials, and mentoring by subject-matter experts. Additionally, assessments may be conducted by expert evaluators whose sole focus is to grade assignments.

A successful CBE program will also develop assessment tools with the help of employers in the community. Professional organizations and associations are also a valuable resource for input on designing courses and programs that meet industry and accrediting standards.

One piece of advice institutions will often hear is to focus on a singular or small number of programs to launch within the CBE model, then evaluate what is working and what is not, reformulate as needed, and then continue to expand the curriculum to include more CBE offerings where appropriate.

How do you determine the right pace and price?

The main objective of CBE is to allow students to move more quickly and cost-effectively through the courses and concepts they understand (demonstrating proficiency or testing out of the course), so they can spend more time on subjects and skills for which they require academic guidance.

Most current CBE programs enable students to pay either course-by-course or through a subscription model. However, some programs have found that the subscription model provides additional value by giving students a time-based goal to complete objectives. Typical subscription periods are often three to six months in length, allowing students to master one or many skills during that timeframe.

What administrative challenges does CBE present in terms of technology or platform requirements/and reporting?

While more institutions now embrace CBE as a viable complement to traditional learning in principle, the technology in place at most universities isn’t designed for it. Moreover, many CRM systems are focused on recruitment and admission versus student engagement and success. For institutions to truly support CBE academic programs, they require a comprehensive student information, financial aid, and CRM solution designed for flexibility.

The chosen technology platform should include, at a minimum, the ability to:

  • Offer academic programs in a variety of academic calendars
  • Package financial aid for individualized programs based on Title IV regulations
  • Track student progress, from skill assessments to unique risk factors
  • Provide an early-warning system that records student objectives and then flags an advisor automatically to check in with the student if he or she misses deadlines
  • Scale easily as new programs and campuses are added

How painless and cost effective it is to achieve this basic level of functionality for CBE will depend on the flexibility and extensibility of the technology in place.

What are the next steps for institutions considering CBE?

Competency-based education is rapidly evolving, with new ideas for the model emerging. Some institutions are understandably cautious about moving forward until there is clearer direction from the U.S. Department of Education and regional and programmatic accrediting bodies. The good news is that support for the model is growing.

Organizations and initiatives such as the Lumina Foundation and the Competency-Based Network are assessing the CBE landscape in higher education and creating an innovative network for institutions to develop CBE standards and best practices.

Products and Solutions

Campus Management’s software and services are in step with higher education’s demands for better service and accountability.