Three things every community college should know about competency-based education

With growing pressure to improve graduation rates and time-to-degree, many colleges wonder if flexible, self-paced competency-based education (CBE) programs could be the answer. By allowing students to progress at their own pace after initially demonstrating their prior competency, CBE programs seem especially well suited for adult learners. But EAB's recent research with over 100 two- and four-year institutions with CBE programs or launch plans found that CBE is not yet a magic bullet solution to the completion challenge, despite its admirable pedagogical goals. We learned three key lessons from early CBE pioneers that community colleges should consider before a new program launch.

What is competency-based education?

Full-fledged CBE programs fulfill two criteria:

1. Credit for competencies, not "seat time"
CBE programs award academic credit based on mastery of clearly defined competencies, rather than on "seat time." In traditional education, time is fixed and mastery is variable. In CBE, mastery is fixed and time is variable.

2. Technology-enabled personalization
CBE programs are known for "personalization at scale," where technology affords each student a distinct pathway through content based on what they know/don’t know and where they need the most support. There are two main types of personalization in CBE programs: personalized pacing and personalized content.

Read Three Myths About Competency-Based Education

1. Most students don't know what competency-based education is

EAB's analysis of Google search behavior shows that searches for "online degree" far outpace those for "competency-based degree." Additionally, CBE program directors report that they must explain the concept of competency-based education to students because students are unfamiliar with the term.

Do Students Search for CBE Programs?

Do students search for CBE programs?

2. Most students do not accelerate in CBE programs

News stories about individual students who completed CBE degrees in record time make it seem like CBE can help adult students quickly finish their degrees. But community college students who hope to enroll in CBE programs face the same barriers to enrollment as they would in a traditional program. For instance, courses of study with math-heavy curricula still require students to complete the necessary developmental math courses before they can enroll. Even when students have the necessary background to enroll, CBE programs report that, on average, only about 10-15% of students manage to accelerate in their programs.

Is an Accelerated Pace Typical for CBE Students?

Is an Accelerated Pace Typical for CBE Students?

3. Success coaches are an essential—and costly—part of CBE

Many first movers hoped that existing faculty could manage to support CBE students. But most institutions quickly realized that online, self-paced students have additional needs that they were unable to support without hiring specialized success coaches. Hiring dedicated staff to regularly meet with CBE students, quickly answer questions, and provide personalized planning to help students stay on track is critical to student success—though it also represents an extra cost for CBE programs.

"Our Faculty Were Buried"

More guidance about CBE

For more advice from early movers about CBE, download EAB's white paper, Three Myths About Competency-Based Education. Download the report.

For step-by-step guidance to help you decide whether to launch a program or to fast-cycle development of existing plans, download EAB's toolkit, The CBE and PLA Playbook. Download the toolkit.

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Three Myths About Competency-Based Education

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