AAC&U News, December 2016
Facts & Figures

CBE Programs Offer Alternative Path for Students

According to an October report by American Institutes for Research, Competency-Based Education (CBE) programs provide certain groups of students—adults, students with previous college experience, and Pell Grant recipients—a valuable alternative pathway to higher education degrees. By comparing students in six CBE programs with comparison groups in traditional programs, the study found that CBE students are on par with or surpass traditional students in key success benchmarks such as retention and completion rates. CBE programs, which focus on the mastery of “competencies” rather than “seat time,” also allow students to complete courses at their own pace and accelerate through degrees. However, the study highlights a dearth of research on the academic quality of CBE programs or their post-completion impact on students, raising important questions about whether these programs offer quality liberal education to the students they enroll.

A Cornucopia of CBE Programs

  • At least five hundred new CBE programs are being implemented or planned by a wide variety of institutions.
  • The six CBE programs in the study offer a range of certificate, associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s programs within public, private nonprofit, and for-profit institutions.
  • The programs studied deliver courses either online or with hybrid models.

Access to Higher Education for Underserved Students

  • Adult students make up between 68 percent and 99 percent of CBE students, while females make up 50 to 84 percent.
  • At four of the six institutions studied, students with previous higher education experience—but not necessarily a previous degree—make up at least 70 percent of students.
  • At least 30 percent of students receive Pell Grants in three of the six of the programs. This is equal to or up to 10 percentage points higher than the Pell recipient rate among traditional students.

Completion Rates, Retention Rates, and the Pace of Degree Progress

  • Between 15 percent and 80 percent of CBE students completed their programs, an increase of 2 to 10 percentage points over completion rates in traditional programs.
  • Retention rates are similar to those in traditional programs and range from 68 percent to 83 percent.
  • Many CBE students progress through programs more quickly by mastering competencies at their own pace. CBE students accrued between 3 percent fewer units per term and 42 percent more units per term than traditional students, a gap attributed to “whether or not [CBE] students have the option of accelerating or increasing their load of courses or competencies each term.”

Did You Know?

There is currently no clear information about the quality of education provided by CBE programs. An increasing number of CBE programs assess learning through standardized tests such as licensure and certification exams, which “are typically content based, rather than competence or performance based. As a result, passing these examinations does not guarantee a student’s ability to apply knowledge to real-world tasks.” The study recommends that CBE programs use common rubrics for evaluating portfolios, which will allow CBE programs to share and compare student learning, but these “are not yet widely used. Without further development in this area of better measuring learning and performance, the field may continue to use less-than-ideal proxies, such as postcompletion wages, employer satisfaction, and, when available, licensure exam pass rates or scores.”


About AAC&U News

AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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