Competency-based education (CBE) is based on the seemingly straightforward idea that students should be awarded credit based on demonstrated learning and mastery of critical skills, rather than time spent in the classroom. While the flexibility and individualization are intuitively appealing implementation hurdles including how to address barriers to federal financial aid, provide quality curriculum standards and aligned assessments, as well as overcome faculty resistance and other administrative issues remain a key barrier. Despite these concerns, momentum around CBE has picked up in recent years, and dozens of CBE programs have been launched in a variety of fields and degree levels and at public, not-for-profit, and for-profit institutions.
In a traditional collegiate model, degrees are awarded on the basis of satisfactorily completing a fixed number of credit hours in various subjects. The credit hour was originally established as an administrative unit to measure faculty teaching loads, in order to determine eligibility for receiving a free pension, established by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie’s Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Over time, the credit hour was increasingly employed in a variety of functions from the disbursement of financial aid and assessing tuition charges, to awarding degrees in all levels and fields of study. Critics of this system have asserted that the credit hour measures time in the classroom, which can be a poor proxy for actual student learning. CBE aims to flip this relationship, by recognizing students for their skills and abilities, regardless of whether they acquired this knowledge inside or outside of the classroom, and allowing the flexibility for students to build skills at their own pace.
CBE is the most commonly used term for this phenomenon - performance-based education, outcomes-based education, and other analogous terms are often used. Indeed, some version of CBE has been employed for several decades, particularly among vocational and career or technically oriented schools and programs. Additionally, performance-based learning was commonly employed in teacher-prep programs as early as the 1970s, though the results of the extensive research body around these programs was largely inconclusive with regard to their effectiveness.
Currently, federal financial aid is disbursed based on the credit-hour, with the exception of a handful of schools using direct assessment programs that have been granted department approval. However, through the Department of Education’s Experimental Sites Initiative, over 40 more schools have received authorization to experiment with using federal financial aid for competency based programs. As of May 2015, several schools are reportedly close to beginning the experiment, but none are up and running.