Understanding Competency-Based Education: An Interview with Allison Barber

By October 27, 2016 Q & A No Comments

Allison Barber is the chancellor of Western Governors University Indiana, an institution that has been practicing competency-based education (CBE) since 1997. She presented at our Connect Higher Education Summit, and she shared with us her insights into CBE: what it is, what challenges it’s facing, and what its future is.

How would you define CBE?

CBE is about allowing the student to use competencies they already have in order to work at a pace that meets their needs. For example, if somebody goes to school to get an MBA, that requires certain classes and, in most cases, you’re not going to be able to skip any of those classes or accelerate their pace just because you’ve already got a basic level of competency in those subjects. The traditional model doesn’t allow for that kind of learning; you’ll attend a class for an entire semester, even if you already know most of the subject matter.

By contrast, CBE requires a student to demonstrate a certain level of mastery over a subject. How a student gets to that level of mastery is going to vary based on what competencies they bring to the table. The advantage of this model is that a student can spend very little time working on skills they already possess, and focus the majority of their time on learning new skills that contribute to the competency that the course requires.

This has some very real benefits for adults seeking continuing education. CBE courses typically allow you to work at your own pace, using a “guide on the side” role for the teacher. It’s not about attending lectures or completing coursework; it’s about learning a skill and demonstrating mastery. Adults also often have a number of contributing skills already, either from college or from jobs, and they can use those skills to progress faster through their classes. An accountant seeking an MBA, for example, doesn’t have to learn accounting all over again.

CBE is often seen as disruptive by people who work in traditional higher ed. What challenges does CBE face from the higher ed world?

Fear is the biggest one. Fear keeps people from trying new things and taking risks, and developing CBE curricula represents a non-trivial effort. Higher ed institutions are notoriously resistant to change so, although institutions may want to implement – or even be in the process of implementing – CBE curricula, change comes very slowly in academia.

And to be fair, it is a lot of work. Beyond the prospect of creating new curricula and potentially hiring new faculty to teach it, a school has to make sure their CBE courses map to credit hours in a way that accreditation agencies will accept. Financial aid is a big hurdle, too. There are some programs out there making it work, but making it work is difficult. I applaud every school that embraces CBE, but I also encourage them to be patient; it takes awhile to transition from one model to the other.

Do you think CBE undermines the value of a traditional liberal arts education?

No. The important thing to realize is that CBE isn’t a replacement for the traditional degree. It’s a great alternative for a lot of skills, but there are many fields that will likely always require a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degree that cannot be offered through CBE. A couple of years ago, Georgetown University published a study that said that 65 percent of jobs are likely to require postsecondary education by 2020. While CBE is certainly a part of that, I think quite a few employers will continue to place value on a traditional postsecondary education.

CBE also works best for people who already have a level of competency that they’ve attained, something that can translate to the subject they’re studying. For adults who’ve been in the workforce already, this model works really well. For the typical undergrad coming to higher ed from a secondary education, a lot of that experience and skill is missing or just being developed, so the traditional liberal arts education might be a better fit. That liberal arts education can then help build competencies that the student can bring into a CBE course later in life.

CBE’s focus tends to be on teaching people practical skills they can use to improve their lives. How do employers feel about CBE?

Employers want college degrees more than they ever have; many require college degrees for basic, entry-level jobs. But alternative forms of education are starting to get a foothold. Look at coding academies and bootcamps: the data suggest that job placement rates for graduates are quite high. I think this points to the fact that employers are growing increasingly comfortable with non-traditional degrees and certifications, like those you get from CBE courses.

That same Georgetown study indicates that fields like health care, community services, and STEM are likely to be big growth sectors in employment in the coming years. These are all fields that benefit from a CBE approach. Already we’re seeing this: in 2014 the Gallup-Purdue Index collected data on approximately 4,000 WGU students, and found that 79 percent of students who graduated in the last five years are employed. The national average is 66 percent, by comparison. I think that says a lot about what employers think of CBE.

Employers also want soft skills: communication, critical thinking, problem-solving. CBE programs, when they’re designed well, are great at teaching these kinds of skills along with the core competency they focus on, and employers are finding that people who complete CBE programs often possess more of the soft skills they’re looking for, and to a greater degree.

The bottom line is that we need an educated workforce, but one size doesn’t fit all. There will always be employers who require a four-year degree or a graduate degree, and that’s fine. But those kinds of degrees aren’t appropriate for every kind of job. There are quite a few jobs out there that are much better suited to graduates of CBE programs.

What does the future of CBE look like?

The latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics is showing us that, while high school graduation rates are going up, college enrollment rates are going down. Why is that? It might be because more students are realizing that college isn’t the right fit for them. A competency-based education might be.

Now, CBE isn’t perfect, and there are certainly places where we can improve. Our graduation rate at WGU is sitting around 40 percent, which is lower than the national average. There are a number of factors at work here, not the least of which is that students attracted to CBE tend to be busy adults with lives that get in the way. There are solutions to these problems, though, and it’s incumbent upon us to find them.

But we’re also seeing a rise in CBE’s popularity. In 2014, 52 colleges and universities had CBE programs underway. Now, it’s closer to 600. What this illustrates is the cycle of innovation: an innovation occurs, and it’s today’s news. But soon people adapt and it becomes tomorrow’s standard. The key to making that happen is in finding new ways to deliver CBE to the people who want it, to improve accessibility and to normalize it. We’ve got a long way to go, but eventually CBE will become tomorrow’s standard.

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: tzipper@learninghouse.com