Postsecondary Competency-Based Education: Scalable or Not?

Dr. Wallace E. BostonAmong the many panaceas touted by policymakers to improve graduation rates of adult students, Competency-Based Education (CBE) may be the innovation most often cited but not yet widely adopted. Eduventures’ new study, “State of the Field, Findings from the 2018 National Survey of Postsecondary CBE,” includes responses from leaders at 500 schools with existing CBE programs or future plans to add them. With approximately 5,300 postsecondary institutions in the U.S., that number represents slightly less than 10% of all providers.

Among the study’s findings:

  • 50% of institutions with CBE programs enroll less than 50 students. Schools were asked what factors either helped the growth of their programs or hindered their growth and the top responses for undergraduate programs were: demand from students, CBE program start-up costs, evidence about CBE programs’ potential to reduce cost for students, and Federal Student Aid regulations and processes.
  • Of these four top responses, program start-up costs and FSA regulations skewed negatively (hindering) and demand from students and evidence about CBE program potential to reduce costs skewed positively (helping).
  • Despite the current low enrollment for many schools, more than 75% of all respondents believe that CBE will grow significantly over the next five years.

Eduventures Lead Analyst Howard Lurie notes that the current round of the U.S. Department of Education’s negotiated rulemaking includes a reexamination of the credit hour versus direct assessment. CBE proponents maintain that elimination of the credit hour measurement is the best way to maximize the potential for students in CBE programs. He writes that “CBE continues to enable schools and policy makers to test out a range of stubborn but valuable questions. Can program innovation in higher education effectively coexist alongside necessary consumer protection measures? Will a redefinition of what some have termed the ‘inhibitive’ credit hour advance student achievement or erode quality? And, lastly, can the ‘regular and substantive interaction’ requirements governing Title IV access be effectively revised to reflect new trends in teaching and learning?”

I like Lurie’s questions, but have two additional ones. First, can CBE programs provide efficiencies of scale similar to current online programs? The answer to my second question influences that response: How many unique content pieces need to be built for each assessment in a CBE program in order to maintain assessment integrity and thwart technologies enabling plagiarism?

The report provides evidence that few CBE programs have achieved enrollments to enable efficiencies of scale. Few schools enroll more than 1,000 students and those institutions collectively enroll just 10% of all CBE enrollments. I have heard arguments that CBE is too new to generate high student demand or employer acceptance and the marketing cost to acquire a student for a CBE program is therefore much higher than the average regular credit hour program. CBE proponents argue that assessments can be automated (including using pre-test adaptive learning tutorials), and that such automation enables CBE programs to be offered at lower cost than regular credit hour programs. While automation can reduce CBE costs, more reliance on automation also enables plagiarism, an issue seldom acknowledged by advocates.

In considering both scaling CBE and plagiarism, I think about the origins of credits awarded for competency demonstrated. When I attended Duke University, it had a language requirement for all students. To waive the requirement, you could submit neither Advanced Placement nor Achievement test scores. Instead, you had to spend the better part of a day taking written language exams and an oral exam to “comp out.” The exam questions weren’t posted on the Internet, and you had to translate questions from professors and respond to them in the language. In short, the process for evaluating proficiency and issuing a waiver was far from efficient. There was also virtually no opportunity to cheat. A student had to be able to read, write, and speak at a fluency level high enough to meet the faculty requirements.

I am not aware of any online CBE programs that provide the same level of instructor-led assessment like my freshman language assessments. In fact, most institutions rely on software to host content that can be used to prepare students for assessments and the content evaluated as part of the assessment. It’s not too difficult for that content to be captured electronically as a student participates in the assessment. The fewer pieces of content that are prepared for an assessment, the easier it will be for those content pieces to be collected and distributed to future students. I don’t know how many unique pieces of content are required per assessment to preempt students or others from capturing and publishing the content as an aid to students in passing the assessment. That said, I suspect that it’s more than two or three per assessment. And, if so, it will cost the institution more to develop those additional content pieces.

If an average of three assessments are completed weekly, then 24 are completed over an eight-week term. If a school currently prepares three pieces of content per assessment (3 x 24 = 72) but discovers that a higher number per assessment (say 10) is required to minimize plagiarism, that increases the development costs significantly by more than 300%. However, certain assessments are not easily interpreted by 10 unique content pieces. For those assessments with fewer pieces, the odds increase that the content can be copied and distributed. An alternative to creating additional pieces for each assessment could be increasing the number of faculty/student one-on-one interactions. In either case, adding content pieces to assessments or increasing faculty/student interactions will make the program more expensive to develop and operate efficiently.

Like many of the institutions in the Eduventures study, APUS has less than 50 students currently enrolled in CBE programs. While I agree that CBE has the potential to increase the number of adults with a college degree, policymakers and administrators need to earnestly consider the questions posed by the author, and my own. The road ahead may be rocky, but it’s important to build quality programs in which graduates can demonstrate broad competency in the degree area at any point in time and not only for the brief moment that they’re required to respond to the assessment posed by the course software.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence