Education Commission of the States: Competency-Based Education Policy Snapshot

The Education Commission of the States has released a new Policy Snapshot.  Read the highlights below.

Policymakers increasingly look at innovative ways for students to access postsecondary education. This Policy Snapshot, Competency-Based Education, defines competency-based education and provides an overview of current and previous legislation. The Policy Snapshot provide a summary of 2016 and 2017 legislative activities, as well as legislation, board policies and programs from previous years.

The main goal of competency-based education serves to award credit/degrees to students for meeting specific skill competencies agreed upon by faculty, industry leaders and workforce representatives. This innovative delivery model could create greater access to postsecondary education for returning adults, low-income students and working adults needing additional skills. 

·        There is the increasing need for highly-skilled employees in the workplace has policymakers and higher education leaders focused on innovative ways for students to access postsecondary education.  These access points can include online programs, prior learning assessments and, the subject of this snapshot, competency-based education.  

·        The National Center on Education Statistics future projections show the adult population in postsecondary education growing at a higher percentage than students under the age of 25.2 With an influx of adult students, states are beginning to experiment with alternative modes of learning and accumulating credit, including competency-based education.  

·        Although competency-based education is not limited to the adult student population, these students typically encompass the majority of the population in these programs. Adult students have specific needs for postsecondary success including increased course flexibility through additional course section offerings in their major and multiple options for financial aid and affordability.  

·        Competency-based education programs often provide a lower cost, allow students to work at their own pace and may or may not incur assessment fees. The adult workforce population looking to up-skill may also benefit from competency-based education programs. Competency-based education policies may not be as far-reaching or prevalent statewide as prior learning assessments, as these policies may create a non-traditional education delivery model. Many of the introduced and enacted policies include studies on how to integrate competency-based education into current institutions or provide a specific program/ institution for this delivery model.  


Thanks Mike, for calling our attention to this policy snapshot. For those who may not familiar with competency-based education, I would like to provide a perspective on it that is broader, as a rapidly growing trend not only in higher education,  but also in K-12, in adult basic skills (including ESL/ESOL) education, in some industries, and as a long-standing practice in vocational, now occupational training.

The focus of this policy snapshot published by the Education Commission of the States is on the success or failure of proposed state legislation about one aspect of competency-based education, post-secondary education, for example how college credit and college credentials can be awarded based on competency-based models, and/or whether or not post-secondary education institutions can offer competency-based education programs that are eligible for financial aid, or what studies or reports are needed or required on progress made offering competency-based higher education models.

The definition of competency-based education chosen for this piece, adapted from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, CAEL, is

“Competency-based education (CBE) definition: offers a flexible way for students to earn credit based on demonstration of subject-matter knowledge learned either

through personalized guided instruction or examinations based on mastery of competencies.”

This is not a comprehensive definition of CBE, but  rather one with a specific context, that is, to enable post secondary education institutions to award college credit based on learning from life experience or guided learning. The definition does not include many of the most important features of CBE that are seen is K-12, adult basic skills education and in some higher education programs: namely that CBE:

  • is focused on learning outcomes rather than seat time. Learners prove that they have mastered the knowledge and skills (called competencies) required for a particular course, or curriculum regardless of how long it takes. It is underpinned by Mastery Learning and criterion-referenced, not norm-referenced assessment — the constant is that every student will achieve the intended learning outcomes; the variable is the amount of time each person needs to reach them, so learning is individually-paced.
  • is organized as learning systems with intended outcomes/objectives, and valid and reliable observable or measurable assessments that align with the objectives.
  • has learning standards held constant by clear, measurable student learning objectives (competencies)
  • uses criterion-referenced, not norm-referenced, assessment. Grading on a curve is gone,  and that
  • Each student’s learning schedule, pace, and learning resources used may greatly vary.

This short policy piece assumes that competency-based education’s context is to award college credit or degrees,[1] which, while in many higher education institutions may be a correct context, ignores other important contexts in which competency based education is being used. Corporations in some industries like high tech, the IBM Corporation for example, are using competencies as micro-credentials (digital badges) to enable employees to advance on internal career pathways. Competency-based adult education has, since the 1970’s, not awarded credit or degrees but been primarily a way that adult learners could see easily measured learning progress in a formative system of evaluation. CBE has also been used to recognize the attainment of standards and competencies for the award of an official external high school diploma through demonstration of proficiency in the prescribed competencies

The policy piece also does not address the growth of competency-based education in elementary and secondary schools, usually now referred to as proficiency-based education


[1] “The main goal of competency-based education serves to award credit/degrees to students for meeting specific skill competencies agreed upon by faculty, industry leaders and workforce representatives. “



David J. Rosen