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State Policy Considerations for Supporting Competency-Based Education in Higher Education

Allison Bell, Director, HCM Strategists

Competency-based education has been part of the American higher education landscape for decades. It is enjoying
a resurgence of interest driven primarily by efforts to redefine quality of higher education in terms of student learning. Competency-based education has the potential to strengthen and improve learning outcomes for all students, particularly those who are not well served by traditional higher education. This approach to teaching and learning affords learners a more transparent pathway for education and employment, alternative approaches to learning, and better student support. It is a more straightforward way to plan, organize, deliver and support student learning across all disciplines.

Efforts are under way to explore how such programs can increase capacity to help more Americans earn meaningful
postsecondary credentials. There are many factors that contribute to a supportive environment for the growth of competency-based education. Through experimental sites, for example, the federal government is exploring how federal student aid policies can better include competency-based education. At the state level, there are many areas that can encourage or inhibit the growth of competency-based education programs. State policy, the focus of this paper, is one such area.

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Understanding Competency-Based Education Toolkit

HCM Strategists

The tools in this packet will help states describe and discuss competency-based education. These tools can be used to educate legislators, members of higher education commissions or boards, staff at institutions or systems, students and the general public.

  • Frequently Asked Questions About Competency-Based Education. Since many stakeholders have only their own educational experience to draw on, and most progressed through a traditional environment, they might be unfamiliar with competency-based education. This document provides answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about competency-based education.

  • How to Communicate About Competency-Based Education. This is a two-sided document that includes strategies for talking about competency-based education generally and with specific audiences.

  • Comparing Traditional Education and Competency-Based Education. This table highlights some
    of the main differences (and similarities) between traditional education delivery models and competency-based education. It can serve as a starting point for discussion and clarification about competency-based education design and philosophy.

  • Understanding Competency-Based Education and Prior Learning Assessment. There is a tendency for people to conflate competency-based education and prior learning assessment, which is problematic for a variety of reasons. In terms of state policy, many states have implemented legislation around including prior learning assessment as part of their strategy for meeting state attainment goals. If policymakers in those states are being asked to also consider the importance of competency-based education, it is important that they clearly understand the difference. This brief description of both helps to clarify those differences.

  • Costs, State Policies and Competency-Based Education—Considerations for States. As state-level stakeholders seek to encourage the development and growth of competency-based education programs, they will need to understand the costs institutions face and how funding, financial aid and tuition policies might affect program development. This table offers a brief summary of these issues, questions policymakers and others might face and considerations for state policymakers to encourage the growth of competency-based education.

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Exploring State Financial Aid Policies to Set a More Supportive Context for Competency-Based Higher Education in Kentucky

Allison Bell, Director, HCM Strategists

Competency-based is an approach to teaching and learning that transparently articulates the competencies (knowledge, skills and abilities) of which students are expected to demonstrate mastery in order to graduate. Many state policymakers are becoming more interested in how this approach can help their state achieve their education attainment and economic goals as well as how they can set a supportive policy environment for the growth of competency-based education. The brief State Policy Considerations for Competency-Based Education describes the state policy areas that might affect competency-based education. This document builds upon that work. This is a CBE collaboration of Commonwealth College & Learn on Demand. At the time of this publication Western Kentucky University, University of Louisville, Morehead State University and Kentucky State University with guidance for the Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) are actively developing competency-based education programs in collaboration with institutions across the state. As they do, they will be exploring ways to ensure the state financial aid policies and processes are inclusive of competency-based education. Commonwealth College & Learn on Demand is a unique collaboration in the U.S.


Students participating in competency-based education programs nationwide will likely need access to state financial aid, especially as the programs grow and include more students. Questions need to be answered about how the structural differences of competency-based education programs can be accommodated in state financial aid programs. For example, nationally, CBE programs might not rely on credit hours. They often do not operate according to traditional academic calendars. In these types of programs, students might begin their studies outside the bounds of a traditional academic calendar. Additionally, they progress as they demonstrate mastery of competencies, rather than after a specific amount of time. State financial aid programs often use language around credit hours and academic terms that might inadvertently exclude or create challenges for students enrolled in competency-based education programs.

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Setting a Supportive State Environment By Integrating CBE into Workforce Development Efforts

Allison Bell, Director, HCM Strategists

Competency-based education programs are designed to benefit a wide variety of students. Many features of these kinds of programs are particularly attractive to adult learners and employers. The added supports, flexible timing and scheduling, alignment to workforce needs and clearly articulated expectations may be a better fit than traditional education approaches, particularly for adults who need to develop their skills and earn a degree or certificate while working and caring for their families. A benefit that competency-based education brings to the workforce is the ability for employers to fully understand the knowledge, skills and abilities prospective employees have mastered.


Because of these benefits, many state stakeholders are interested in ensuring a supportive state environment for the growth of competency-based education. As described in State Policy Consideration for Competency-Based Education, state stakeholders who are interested in doing so should explore ways to align these programs with economic needs. In Kentucky, state and institution leaders are hoping to strengthen their competency-based efforts by integrating such programs into their broader workforce development efforts. This brief outlines current workforce development efforts in Kentucky, highlighting which of those might be most appropriate for the integration of a competency-based approach.

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Incorporating Competency Into a State's Higher Education Strategic Plan - Indiana's Strategic Planning Process

Allison Bell, Director, HCM Strategists

Competency-based education is an approach to teaching and learning that focuses on the competencies (knowledge, skills and abilities) that students must master rather than the amount of time spent in class (as measured by credit hours). This approach benefits students and the state in multiple ways. These include clear expectations for what students know and can do upon graduation, the potential for students to progress more quickly as they demonstrate mastery of competencies (or take more time to master more difficult competency areas) and the promise of more equitable outcomes for all students.


Many state agencies, such as the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, are interested in exploring ways to encourage the growth of competency-based education programs. One such way is to ensure that the state policy environment is supportive of these programs. The brief State Policy Considerations for Competency-Based Education describes policy areas that might affect competency-based education. These include appropriations and funding, financial aid, transfer and articulation, and tuition setting. Contextual factors, such as back-office systems and processes, communications and partnerships also are highlighted as important considerations for state policymakers interested in encouraging the growth of competency-based education.


This document builds upon that work by illustrating how the Indiana Commission for Higher Education incorporated competency as a priority in its 2016 strategic plan. It offers options and considerations for states on the process of engaging stakeholders and building support as well as on more specific policy recommendations and considerations.

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State Policy Consideration for Aligning State CBE Efforts Across Education Levels in Arizona

Allison Bell, Director, HCM Strategists

Competency-based education is an approach to teaching and learning that transparently articulates the competencies (knowledge, skills and abilities) that students must master in order to graduate. In many states, policymakers are trying to understand how they can create a supportive policy environment for the institutions that are developing and expanding competency-based programs.


In Arizona, competency-based education efforts are underway at the K-12, community college and four-year institution levels. However, pathways from one level of education to another or from one institution to another are not always clear for students. Representatives of the Arizona Board of Regents, education-related nonprofit organizations, university and community collegte faculty, administration and students and workforce development staff met recently to discuss competency-based education in Arizona.


This document serves as a summary of that discussion and a framework for potential next steps as Arizona leaders align their competency-based education efforts.

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State Policy Consideration for Incorporating CBE in Florida's Statewide Course Numbering System

Allison Bell, Director, HCM Strategists

Competency-based education is an approach to teaching and learning that transparently articulates the competencies (knowledge, skills and abilities) that students must master in order to graduate. In many states, policymakers are trying to understand how they can create a supportive policy environment for the institutions that are developing and expanding competency-based programs. A number of state policy areas, as described in the brief State Policy Considerations for Competency-Based Education,might affect competency-based education. One such area is transfer and articulation agreements.


Transfer and articulation policies help ensure students know and understand how learning at one college or university can apply to their academic program at another and make those pathways clear. This includes students who are transferring from community colleges to four-year institutions, students who are transferring from one college to another of the same level and students who are transitioning from secondary to postsecondary education. Some states use a common course numbering system in which equivalent courses at different institutions are given the same title and number. This system ensures standardization across institutions so students can seamlessly transfer courses.


Transfer and articulation agreements might serve traditional education well, but they pose challenges for institutions interested in developing and growing competency-based education programs. Competency-based education programs are focused on the knowledge, skills and abilities that students must master, so the specific courses that students complete become less important. As institutions in states with common course numbering systems begin to develop competency-based education programs, policymakers and institutional leaders and faculty need to have conversations about how those programs should be included.


Many Florida institutions have started to explore, design and implement competency-based education. And, they will continue to do so as the new strategic plan calls for competency-based education programs to be offered at half of the state’s universities. State policymakers at the Department of Education, the Florida College System and the Florida University System, along with leaders at Complete Florida (a statutorily created body charged with helping adults return to college to complete their degrees), have begun to explore ways to ensure that competency-based education programs can comply with the SCNS. This document summarizes those conversations and offers next steps for Florida institutional and system-level stakeholders.

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C-BEN Response to Inspector General's Report on Western Governors University.

C-BEN Response to Inspector General's Report on Western Governors University.


The Office of Inspector General within the U.S. Department of Education issued an audit critical of Western Governors University’s (WGU) competency-based education programs, suggesting they are not providing the “regular and substantive” faculty interaction with students as is required for federal financial aid. C-BEN responds by calling for the use and adoption of the Quality Framework for CBE Programs to serve as guideposts and assurances to policymakers and accreditors seeking to regulate this field of practice. 

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C-BEN Releases Latest Quality Framework for CBE Programs

The Competency-Based Education Network releases its latest edition of the Quality Framework for CBE Programs. This framework is intended to inform strong program design, and build the confidence of regulators working to create a safe space for responsible innovation. 

C-BEN's aim with this work is to provide guidance to the field, allowing institutions to draw on these principles and standards to inform the design, implementation, or scaling of high-quality programs. This framework can provide guideposts and assurances to policymakers and accreditors tasked with regulating this vibrant, and still emerging, field of practice.

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New Member Brochure

C-BEN is Open to New Members - At long last, C-BEN is officially open to new members! Attached you will find the new member brochure which we will post on comp-L.  If you know of interested individuals, please feel free to forward this piece to them.

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