Public Colleges Lead in Adopting Competency-Based Programs

Report: “Survey of the Shared Design Elements and Emerging Practices of Competency-Based Education Programs”

Organization: Public Agenda

Summary: Competency-based education, which measures students’ progress according to how well they master material instead of how much time they spend in class, has been growing in popularity. Nearly 600 colleges and universities are offering or developing such programs; this report reflects data from 179 respondents.

Among its findings:

  • Public institutions, especially regional comprehensive universities and community colleges, are the most frequent adopters of competency-based programs (71 percent). Private nonprofit institutions are next in popularity (23 percent) and are also the most likely to have programs that already enroll students or are expanding. The remaining 6 percent are for-profit colleges.
  • Respondents were nearly universal in making learning and assessment a priority: 95 percent or more “strongly agreed” that healthy programs must focus on learners, have meaningful assessments, and produce prepared graduates.
  • Aspirations do not always match reality. For example, while 99 percent of respondents said it was important to establish clear standards to help students learn domain-specific content and generalizable theories, skills, and behaviors, only 65 percent said they had satisfied that goal.
  • The logistics of the programs can be sticking points. Nearly 40 percent of respondents said that creating compatible data systems was a barrier that frustrated students, staff members, and instructors. More than a quarter said that creating a pricing model was “extremely challenging,” which reflects the traditional link between financial aid and the credit hour.

Bottom Line: While competency-based education has been a part of higher education for more than 40 years, this report is among the first to comprehensively describe the forms that this model of learning is taking, and the challenges it faces.

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