4 critical steps when venturing on the competency-based path

Karli Grant, M.Ed., M.S.T.M.
December 1st, 2015

A CBE early adopter talks first steps in creating a basic competency-based framework.

competency-based-CBEIf you go to the history section of Rasmussen College’s website, you will see sepia-toned images of male and female students behind bulky desks and teachers at chalkboards. It was the early 1900s and the college was ahead of its time in recognizing the need for more accounting and business professionals in the new century. It may not have been called competency-based education (CBE), but its guiding principle was the same: to help students develop practical and demonstrable skills that align with the needs of employers.

Over a century later, CBE is now the hot topic in higher education, and Rasmussen is among a network of colleges working to address shared challenges to designing, developing and scaling competency-based degree programs.

Today, factors beyond skill deficits are driving the demand for competency-based education. Traditional and nontraditional students alike are looking for faster, more flexible, and more cost effective ways to achieve their academic goals. At the same time, institutions facing declining enrollments and retention rates are looking at CBE as a way to attract more students and keep them on track for graduation.

Institutions with a focus on mentoring, apprentice-based and vocational learning have embraced the CBE model since its inception, but many schools with a variety of academic programs are now exploring the possibility of offering competency-based courses.

For the many colleges and universities currently testing the waters, the question is “where do we start?” Early-adopters like Rasmussen College are partnering with regional accreditors and the U.S. Department of Education as best practices begin to emerge, but in the meantime there are steps every institution can take to create a basic framework for CBE.

Step 1: Identify Programs that are Best Suited for CBE

Institutions should look for areas that allow students with real-world experience to be assessed for competencies. Many adult students are looking for formal validation of skills they’ve already acquired. Business, medical and allied health programs, technology, and graphic design are among the most common fields selected for competency-based study, but any programs that allow students to demonstrate mastery of skills are good candidates.

While these more hands-on programs are popular options for CBE curriculum, the potential exists to transform traditional liberal arts courses into CBE offerings. Courses focused on analytical thinking, effective written and verbal communication skills, providing constructive feedback, and entrepreneurial and innovative thinking can be transformed into effective competency-based learning opportunities.

When Rasmussen first decided to move forward with CBE, it established a rubric for identifying suitable programs, one that asked:

  • Are there already established programs out there that people might recognize, that provide a built-in level of awareness and validation?
  • Are there areas that might differentiate the college and serve as a competitive advantage?
  • What types of students might be involved in these programs? Is it a mature student that might be more independent or a newer student who might need more support and guidance?
  • From an operational perspective, what would allow us to experiment on a small scale initially, and then scale if we want to broaden to more students and programs?

Based on this rubric, Rasmussen started with general education requirements within its business school, which then were extended to general education requirements within other programs. Today, Rasmussen College’s Flex Choice competency-based option is offered in a number of associate’s and bachelor’s completer programs, including business, nursing, computer science, criminal justice, and more.

Institutions should also look at programs that already have a wealth of learning materials
(e.g., e-textbooks, multimedia and digital assets in the public domain), and open education resources that are easily accessible and convenient to students. Part of the value of competency-based programs is that they save students and institutions time and money by incorporating existing channels of learning. MOOCs, for example, are often included in CBE programs.

(Next page: Steps 2&3)

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