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VOL. 40 | NO. 27 | Friday, July 1, 2016

Colleges embrace new educational model

By Linda Bryant

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In the United States, about half the people who start college don’t finish. And there are 37 million Americans with some college credits but no degree, according to a recent audio documentary “Some College, No Degree.”

That accounts for more than 20 percent of the working-age population.

Additionally, more adults are seeking graduate degrees in order to get a leg up professionally or to pivot to entirely new careers.

The number of adults who have completed some graduate school increased 24 percent from 2008 to 2013, from 29 million to 36 million, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

In fact, going to graduate school for additional education beyond a college degree has become the majority experience for those with a bachelor’s degree.

How are colleges and universities meeting the challenge of educating this influx of students?

Competency-based education – or CBE – is one popular strategy colleges and universities are using to adapt to these needs.

Proponents say CBE offers a fast, flexible path to a degree and a more cost-effective way to learn.

Skeptics say too many CBE programs have high non-completion rates and say certain issues, such as transferring credits, can pose problems.

But clearly, CBE education is here to stay and is growing at a rapid rate. From Harvard University to Lipscomb University to Western Governor’s University Tennessee, educators are experimenting with this model of education.

“CBE is an adult-friendly model that is here to stay,” says educational psychologist Sia Mohajer. “Adults gravitate towards CBE because they can see the end from the beginning.

“They have limited time and CBE allows them to be in the driver’s seat. This works well because most adults feel exhilarated by self-directed education.

The biggest attraction and reason I think CBE will be even more ubiquitous in the future is that students, not instructors are in charge of their learning. Combine that with how cost-effective it is and you have a recipe for lasting educational change.

What CBE lacks in rigorous assessment and safeguard from plagiarism and online test cheating, it makes up in a lot of other ways, Mohajer adds.

“When it comes to something that involves accountability and extremely specific systems like engineering or medicine, CBE isn’t a good match and it never will replace those kinds of rigorous, hands-on training,” she explains.

Adrian Ridner, CEO and co-founder Study.com, sees more growth.

“The number of schools with these types of policies is expected to increase significantly because they offer a faster, more flexible, and lower cost path to a degree that working adults are demanding,” Ridner says.

Ridner also says employers are increasingly looking favorably at CBE programs.

“The important thing from a hiring perspective to the employer is that the degree earned, and that is exactly the same as a traditional program,” he says.

“Many employers actually look favorably upon employees who complete non-traditional programs because it exhibits out-of-the-box thinking and a concern for finding the most efficient and cost effective options.”

Nashville resident Charla Long is the executive director of the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), a nonprofit that that is considered the national voice for the CBE movement.

As the former founding dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Professional Studies, Long created Lipscomb’s competency-based degree program.


In 2015, Long launched her own consulting practice and is now working with a number of K-20 institutions, businesses, and internationally known foundations on competency-based education initiatives.

The Ledger reached out to Long with a few targeted questions about the CBE trend.

Do you have any statistics about the growth of CBE? How popular is it?

“This is a tricky question to answer, as there is no official repository for this type of information. We know from a study conducted in 2015 that there were nearly 600 institutions in the process of planning, building, implementing or scaling up a CBE program on their campuses.

“That’s up from approximately 20 institutions in 2013.

“There has been increased interest in competency-based education because of the potential it presents to students, faculty and employers.”

It seems like critical skills/knowledge might fall through the cracks with this model unless it’s structured correctly.

Are there best practices about how to structure a CBE program to make sure it’s delivering excellent education?

“A well-designed CBE program ensures that the competencies which make up their program are the knowledge, skills, abilities and attitudes needed by an individual with that particular credential.

“These competencies represent both cross-cutting competencies, like communication skills and problem-solving skills, and specialized competencies, like how to create a marketing plan.

“High-quality programs often align the selection of their competencies to national frameworks, such as the Degree Qualifications Profile or specialized accreditor standards.

“Like with any academic program, careful monitoring of students and graduates is needed to ensure the program is giving the learner what is needed to be successful.”

How does Lipscomb offer CBE? Can you mention the highlights?

“Lipscomb’s program begins with a unique one-day assessment in a behavioral assessment center. Over the course of eight hours, a student has the opportunity to demonstrate 15 different competencies at least three different times.

“Three faculty, who are trained and certified as behavioral assessors, determine each student’s competencies and create a customized learning plan for the learner.

“Then, the learner enrolls in competency development modules to learn and to demonstrate their new knowledge, skills, abilities and attitudes.

“By this fall, a student will be able to take all of her classes through the competency development modules, with instructional and coaching support provided by a diverse group of faculty subject matter experts.

Are certain fields of study more appropriate for CBE than others?

“Any field of study that needs to assure the learning of its graduates is appropriate for CBE. Professional programs like nursing, business and information technology are somewhat easier to build, but there are very successful programs built in the liberal arts areas, as well.”

What is the future of CBE?

“I believe we will continue to see growth in CBE, as more programs publicly share their evidence on the effectiveness of their models.

“Additionally, I believe we will see a move toward standardization of competency definitions as an effort to create a new currency of learning. CBExchange, an interactive workshop designed to help institutions build quality programs, is a great place for newcomers and seasoned experts to increase their own competencies in CBE.”

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