Competency-Based Education: One Key to Higher Ed’s Future

higher education

Education writer and administrator Matt Reed recently published a review of a recent book that focuses on the uncertain future of United States higher education. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press, The Great Upheaval provides a comprehensive examination of the institution of higher education. Authors Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt successfully mesh historical foundations with implications for the role that our colleges and universities will play over the next several decades. 

Something Reed zeroed in on caught my eye. As a consultant who supports institutions in both accreditation and competency-based education, I was intrigued that he noted the implications for both in a single observation: 

“The most intriguing prediction, to my mind, was around accreditation. They predict that the object of accreditation will shift from the institution to the student, with something like accreditors verifying that students have achieved certain defined competencies. Where they achieved them is much less important.”

This is spot on. In years past, the traditional model of post-secondary teaching and learning was established and unquestioned. Faculty taught from a lectern at the front of a classroom. We “imparted our knowledge” to students in the form of lectures. They came to class, sat passively feverishly taking notes, and regurgitated what they had heard in lectures on an exam. 

Exams comprised what were typically low-level objective items with a predominant blend of true/false, fill-in-the-bubble or short essay questions. In many cases, they were scored by machine for convenience. Student grades were based on attending class and passing exams. There was never any assurance that students were actually learning on a deep level. In other words, as long as they played by the rules, they progressed in their program and eventually graduated. 

Traditional Regulatory Oversight

Accrediting bodies have embraced that traditional educational model. Credits were assigned according to the Carnegie unit. Course content was easily understood by reviewing a course description or syllabus. Institutional quality was measured by metrics such as faculty qualifications and scholarly activity; student retention; and low student loan default rates.

While these factors are each important there is one metric that’s been mostly overlooked: To what extent are students actually learning? Enter the competency-based education (CBE) model.

Competency-Based Education (CBE)

This approach to teaching and learning has gained traction over the past decade. I’ve written on CBE several times before. As I explained in my piece The Time Has Come for Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education isn’t an easier way to learn or to earn a college degree–it’s just different.

With this model, teaching and learning are completely different from that of traditional classrooms. Students must actually demonstrate what they know and are able to do against a set of standards-based, measurable competencies. Faculty serve more as mentors and learning resources, as opposed to providing direct instruction. CBE requires everyone – students, faculty, and departmental staff to think very differently. 

In order to survive and thrive, I really do believe that we will see a greater emphasis from regulatory agencies on measurable student learning. Authors Levine and Van Pelt spoke to this in their book. This transition will require institutions to critically reexamine their long-held practices and likely make programmatic and infrastructure modifications. Some will be up to the challenge. They will gradually start building a competency-based design lean heavily toward making data-informed decisions. Sadly, other higher education institutions will not make this transition, from either a lack of desire or a lack of know-how. Those institutions that cannot adopt a more student-centric model will fail. 


About the Author: A former public school teacher and college administrator, Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher provides consultative support to colleges and universities in quality assurance, accreditation, educator preparation and competency-based education. Specialty: Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP).  She can be reached at:

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