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Aurora Institute

Competency Education in Higher Education: Taking the First Steps

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Andrew Valent

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Modernize HEA

Last week I attended a Center for American Progress event on competency-based education from the perspective of postsecondary education. I was interested to hear that the US Department of Education is paying close attention to developments in this burgeoning field. Eduardo Ochoa, the Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education, pointed out three models currently being pursued by higher education institutions:

  1. Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) using competency-based systems to structure courses and assessments within the traditional credit-based model by mapping competencies back to the credit hour.
  2. The US Department of Education (ED) is allowing for experimental sites by waiving certain requirements under the Higher Education Act, allowing IHEs to pursue innovative approaches to improving student outcomes.
  3. Current statute allows for direct assessment of competencies in place of credit hours with the approval of the accrediting agency and ED. Ochoa mentioned that while this presents a significant opportunity for IHEs, no institutions have gone forward with it yet.

During the panel discussion, participants addressed a few central themes:

There is no one standard approach, but several developing simultaneously. Participants acknowledged that momentum was building and while we might not see any national system that fully incorporates competency-based education, new approaches are developing. At this point, many IHEs have identified competencies graduates should leave with, but don’t explicitly assess for those competencies. Others, such as Western Governor’s University, have assessed for competency in some or all of their courses. Some institutions have gone as far as doing away with the traditional course and assign competencies to a series of projects. However, there has been no standard approach and we are still learning what is possible.

Competency-based education allows for learning in a variety of settings. Panelists pointed out that competency-based education promotes a more holistic approach to education that allows for learning to happen in a variety of settings. In a competency-based system, students are no longer tied to a course, but can learn through project-based approaches and outside of the classroom setting.

Technology allows for new opportunities. Learning adaptive software will more effectively cater to different learning styles that allows for self-pacing. It will also shift the role of faculty from the sole content teacher to one where they can act as a facilitator. However, in pursuing these shifts, we have to think about how we evaluate teaching in this context. What do we evaluate and how do we do it?

Issues arise in replacing the credit hour. Currently, policymakers are grappling with the question of how we might replace the credit hour with measurable competencies. Participants acknowledged that the credit hour is in place to protect the student. It is an easy-to-understand metric of student learning that is standardized and largely allows students to carry credits to other institutions should they transfer. In place of standardized credit hours, shifting to awarding degrees based on competencies means we need to think hard about the meaning of quality and what outcomes we would like to see out of our college graduates. ED has intentionally made the definition of the credit hour broad, encompassing time and amount of work, allowing for innovation, but IHEs and accreditors still interpret this definition as based on time requirements.

Everyone is afraid of everyone. Addressing the challenges in the field, one panelist remarked that, “everyone is afraid of everyone.” IHEs don’t want to take the first step, fearing the accreditation process; accreditors are wary of approving competency-based programs because ED requires a focus on the credit hour; and in an effort to maintain quality, ED is hesitant to allow for too many competency-based programs. The key is for ED and accreditors to allow for innovation through waivers, where programs can experiment and study their results, developing a continuous feedback loop that will inform future and larger-scale reform.


Andrew Valent is a Program Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum. He works on a variety of issues, including afterschool/expanded learning, college and career readiness, and career and technical education and is excited to add competency-based education to the list.