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Resource Guide to Competency-Based Education: Overview

A list of resources provided by Truxal Library for researching competency-based education.

An important idea in Competency Based Education - what students know and can do is more important than how they learned it.

In a national poll conducted by Lumina and Gallup, results reflect strong support for redesigning pathways to higher education:

  • 87 % of respondents said that students should be able to receive college credit for knowledge and skills acquired outside the classroom ;
  • 75 % said they would be more likely to enroll in postsecondary education if they could be evaluated and receive credit for what they already know;  
  • 70 % said that if a student demonstrates mastery of the course material in less time than the typical course session (16 weeks), the student should get credit for the course without completing the full session. 

from America's Call for Higher Education Redesign: The 2012 Lumina Foundation Study of the American Public's Opinion on Higher Education

White Papers

Book, Patricia. "All Hands on Deck: Ten Lessons from Early Adopters of Competency-Based Education." Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, 2014.

"We provide a snapshot of 7 competency-based postsecondary programs and draw from their pioneering work to better understand how CBE programs can be developed. Program eligibility for federal financial aid appears to be one of the key factors in defining these programs as either course-based with credit equivalency or direct assessment. We review attempts at overall definitions of competency-based education ... then provide 10 lesssons practitioners have learned in the design ... related to administration, faculty and student support, data systems, choice of model, business model and structure." (From the Abstract)

"CAEL 2013 Forum & News: Competency-Based Education." Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, 2013.

In Part 1, the Council offers a summary of its 2013 national summit on Assessing Outcomes and Competencies hosted in cooperation with Excelsior College's Center for Educational Measurement. Part 2 describes 3 competency-based programs: University of Maryland's University College, Northern Arizona University's Personalized Learning, and Southern New Hampshire University's College for America. Part 3 considers issues related to accreditation and federal policy.

Ford, Kate. "Competency-Based Education: History, Opportunities, and Challenges." UMUC Center for Innovation in Learning and Student Success, 2014.

From UMUC, this report "traces some major landmarks in the growth of CBE, including the development of concepts of curriculum mapping and competency frameworks, the current state of CBE implementation, and challenges remaining". (from the introductory paragraph)

Johnstone, Sally M., Peter Ewell and Karen Paulson. "Student Learning as Academic Currency." American Council on Education, 2010.

ACE has reissued this essay originally published in 2002 because "it makes a useful contribution to current debates about student mobility, accountability, and learning outcomes. Authors Peter Ewell, Sally Johnstone, and Kearn Paulson were ahead of their time in recognizing the limitations of our traditional seat-time credit system in a world transformed by the Internet. In the essay, they describe a possible new system of academic accounting based on demonstration of competency, and discuss the implications of such a system for institutions, states, the federal government, and accreditors." (from the Forward)

Klein-Collins, Rebecca. "Competency-Based Degree Programs in the U.S.: Postsecondary Credentials for Measurable Student Learning and Performance." Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, 2012.

A comprehensive summary of the ideas and issues of competency-based education including history and extensive detail on many current postsecondary initiatives. Public policy recommendations include aligning degree-based competencies with workplace skill requirements, promoting valid approaches to recognizing and awarding credit for prior learning, and using competency frameworks to support statewide transfer and articulation agreements.

Klein-Collins, Rebecca. "Sharpening Our Focus on Learning: the Rise of Competency-Based Approaches to Degree Completion." National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, 2013.

"This paper defines unifying concepts shared by different competency-based education programs, describes current competency-based models using the direct assessment approach, and examines the national policy context that could determine the extent to which these programs are able to go to scale. The author argues that competency-based education provides an opportunity to rethink what a college degree means for student learning while addressing concerns regarding higher education's quality and cost." (from the Abstract)

Laitinen, Amy. "Cracking the Credit Hour" New America Foundation, 2012.

Laitinen, named by the Chronicle of Higher Ed as one of the top ten innovators of 2013 for her work with CBE, focuses on the role of public policy. "The basic currency of higher education - the credit hour - represents the root of many problems plaguing America's Higher education system: the practice of measuring time rather than learning ... In an era when college degrees are simultaneously becoming more important and more expensive, students and taxpayers can no longer afford to pay for time and little or no evidence of learning." (from New America Foundation website)





Principal models for CBE programs

"CBE models have been described as either course-based with credit equivalency or Direct assessment models ... The course-based model links student progress ultimately to the Carnegie Unit that has traditionally measured seat time in direct instruction and related learning activities ... institutions translate competencies defined at the program level into topics that can be formulated into courses ... the same material is covered in the CBE assessment as you would expect in a college course in that discipline. Students can proceed at their own pace and accelerate time to degree. ... The other model, referred to as direct assessment, seeks to be untethered from course material, seat time and the credit hour ... learners demonstrate competencies, particularly mastery, at their own pace, typically online, and progress through academic programs when they are ready to do so"                from Book, Patricia. All Hands on Deck: Ten Lessons from Early Adopters of Competency-Based Education

CBE and Financial Aid

"The entire massive multibillion-dollar federal financial aid system runs on credit hours. Credit hours are used to determine full- or part-time status, which changes the amount of aid a student can recieve. Abusive interpretation of the credit hour could lead to fraud on a huge scale. But the credit hour is also archaic, a nonsensical basis for regulating online programs in which the whole notion of time in the classroom has no meaning."      from Laitinen, Amy. Cracking the Credit Hour.


Porter, Stephen R. Competency-based Education and Federal Student Aid. North Carolina State University, 2014.

Some of the questions raised in this report:

  • Because CBE students complete competencies rather than credit-hour based courses, how should enrollment status be determined?
  • How can financial aid that depends on clearly defined academic terms be disbursed to CBE students?
  • What does "satisfactory academic progress" - a requirement to retain financial aid - mean without a GPA, since competencies are either earned or not earned?


Bergeron, David. Applying for title IV Eligibility for Direct Assessment (Competency-Based) Programs. U.S. Department of Education, 3/19/2013.

This Dear Colleague letter from the Acting Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education "provides guidance to institutions that wish to have direct assessment (competency-based) programs considered for title IV, Higher Education Act (HEA) eligibility."


CBE and Maryland Law

Maryland Higher Education Commission, Academic Regulations, Minimum Requirements for In-State Degree- Granting Institutions.

Addressing graduation requirements, COMAR 13B.02.02.16 in Section H discusses credit for competency-based education.

Library photo courtesy of Barry Halkin Photography