Center for American Progress

The Opportunities and Challenges of Competency-Based Education

The Opportunities and Challenges of Competency-Based Education

New Strategy Can Make Education More Effective

A recent CAP event gathered education leaders to discuss the benefits and difficulties of this form of education.


Students, educators, employers, and policymakers alike are beginning to embrace competency-based education models that have the potential to transform standards of higher education, keeping students competitive in the global workforce. On June 7 policy experts and leaders from institutions pioneering competency-based education participated in a CAP event exploring the opportunities and challenges of this educational model.

At the event, Rebecca Klein-Collins, research director at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, detailed how competency-based education can increase the effectiveness of education and can reduce the amount of time needed to earn a degree. Unlike education based on credit hours, she said, competency-based education assesses learning by objectively measuring “when a student has processed what they have learned in such a way that they’re able to apply their skills and knowledge in a variety of situations.”

Klein-Collins described two different ways that a handful of higher education institutions are already embracing competency-based education. The first group of institutions maintained traditional college programs, offering a menu of college courses based on credit hours but also identified a list of learning outcomes that communicate what they expect their students to have mastered as graduates of their institutions.

The second group of institutions eschewed traditional course frameworks based on credit hours and instead re-engineered traditional curricula and assessments of learning, Klein-Collins said. Some of these institutions require students to complete a series of projects, while others identify students’ needs and provide them with faculty mentors to help them identify educational resources such as courses within the institution, courses at other institutions, and self-directed studies.

Following Klein-Collins’s overview of competency-based education, a panel of education experts discussed some of the opportunities and challenges of competency-based education. Moderated by CAP Policy Analyst Stephen Steigleder, the panel included Eduard Ochoa, assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education; Ralph Wolff, president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges; Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation; and Mary Lee Pollard, dean of the Excelsior College School of Nursing.

Laitinen argued that competency-based education will be key to developing an educational system that produces more degrees and credentials more efficiently and effectively. Unlike the credit hour, which is standardized around time, competency-based systems give “credit for learning no matter where it happens,” she said. Because students would be able to build on their own skills, abilities, and knowledge, the time required to obtain a degree would be reduced, resulting in a less expensive and higher-quality education.

While recognizing the potential of competency-based learning to measure both what a student knows and what that student can do with his or her knowledge, Wolff suggested that divorcing learning assessment from time and adopting a noncourse-based approach could raise issues in assuring and measuring quality. “The last thing we want is a standardized approach that all competencies have to be demonstrated the same way or through some standardized assessment methods,” he said.

Pollard noted that, though a challenge, time-based assessments can be applied to competency-based learning, as in the nursing program at Excelsior College. “We have worked backwards and assigned credit hours to each of our performance exams and to our competency assessments, just to try to meet the regulations for each of the independent state boards of nursing,” Pollard said. “Competency is new in discussion of higher ed, but there are some roadblocks, especially when the program leads to professional licensure.”

Ochoa acknowledged that financial aid could present an additional challenge to competency-based learning. “If we are going to get to a point where we can deliver the outcomes, the competencies, in a much more cost-effective way,” he said, “how do you establish a level of financial support that should be forthcoming?”

The panelists agreed that for competency-based education to reach its potential, actors in education will have to cooperate. “I think there needs to be a partnership between the institutions; the Department of Education; [the Department of] Labor, if they are involved; and the accreditor community,” Wolff said. With this cooperation, competency-based education may be able to answer many of the shortcomings of postsecondary education in the 21st century.

For more on this event, please see its event page.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.