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New study shows colleges and universities recognize shifts in student demographics, but questions remain on how to best serve today’s non-traditional learner.

U.S. colleges and universities are inspired by the potential of competency-based education—a method to enhance the rigor and transparency of student outcomes—yet the pace of implementation for CBE courses and programs remains gradual. That’s a key takeaway from a new study, “Deconstructing CBE: An Assessment of Institutional Activity, Goals, and Challenges in Higher Education,” which surveyed leaders at 251 colleges and universities active or interested in competency-based education.

At a time when only 29 percent of higher education students are “traditional” 18-22 year-olds enrolling directly after high school, and a quarter of all enrollees are over the age of 30, myriad colleges and universities are considering CBE as a way to boost the relevance and flexibility of their offerings. With 52 percent of employers reporting that job openings remain unfilled because qualified candidates cannot be found, workforce development issues are also a key driver of institutional interest in CBE.

But as the rationale for CBE comes into focus, many higher education institutions are still exploring how to embrace the complexity required to scale CBE programs. “Deconstructing CBE” analyzes the diversity of CBE programs and evaluates how CBE can be customized to meet specific institutional needs. The study also offers insights into how CBE is delivered, the role of online tools and platforms, and how CBE compares to traditional higher education in terms of effort, outcomes, and communication.

The study was released today by Ellucian, the leading global provider for higher education software and services; Eduventures, the leading independent higher education research and advisory firm; and the American Council on Education (ACE), the major coordinating body for the nation’s colleges and universities.

Among the study’s key findings:

CBE targets a diverse community:

  • The majority of respondents (68 percent) look to CBE to expand opportunities and enhance learning for non-traditional students, broadly defined as non-traditional learners, or “diverse learners,” by age or demographics.
  • 35 percent of respondents see CBE as applicable to more traditional students.
  • 68 percent of surveyed community colleges see CBE as one solution to address workforce needs.

High interest, but small scale and diverse practices are slowing robust adoption:

  • While interest in CBE is high, programs are typically executed on a small scale and institutions are taking diverse approaches.
  • Outside of a small number of CBE-dominant institutions, most CBE activity occurs at the department or course level, and is not currently associated with certificate or degree pathways.
  • 7 percent of respondents reported that CBE was the institution’s dominant mode of instruction, while an additional 18 percent reported active CBE programs, and 37 percent indicated that CBE is occurring at the course level.
  • 17 percent of respondents reported using CBE in a certificate program, and 34 percent in a degree program. About two-thirds of respondents have yet to offer any CBE program or are still in the planning stages.
  • While adoption is still nascent, 42 percent of institutions surveyed plan to offer a learning analytics dashboard for faculty.

While the concept of CBE has existed for decades and has experienced a new surge in popularity, the study’s findings indicate that implementation is hindered by competing definitions, confused terminology, and narrow perceptions of what CBE really is. This complexity reflects the richness of the CBE palette, as well as its potential to enhance higher education. Hundreds of institutions and thousands of leaders and practitioners are grappling with varied means to define and implement CBE.

Richard Garrett, chief research officer at Eduventures, remarked that institutions must make choices when designing a CBE framework to match the needs of particular programs, students, or institutions. “CBE does not have to be delivered online, and need not be entirely self-paced. A CBE program might value student cohorts, and might target traditional age students rather than working adults. At the same time, CBE does call for schools to do some things differently, such as re-think faculty roles and course development.”

Jeff Ray, president and CEO at Ellucian, remarked that these results demonstrate a clear need for CBE programs. “There are 36 million people in the United States who have earned some college credit but not a degree and many more with on-the-job experience who know that higher education is the key to taking their careers to the next level. While colleges and universities are seeing a rise in this substantially underserved market, they need help to take CBE from concept to practice. We are working with several Brainstorm early adopters who are already seeing positive results. One institution has seen participants complete the CBE course in less than half the time it traditionally takes and those students are now positioned to make $43,000 a year. This is just one example of the great things we can help accomplish, and an encouraging sign that institutions can indeed overcome any barrier to effective CBE implementation.”

“Our member institutions may benefit from the rich sources of information that are becoming available about CBE implementation,” said Deborah Seymour, chief academic innovation officer at ACE. “The larger the number of sources, the richer the possibilities of CBE choices. This study provides solid information to help with such choices.”

“Deconstructing CBE” demonstrates how CBE is implemented across a spectrum of higher education institutions. The study includes portraits of CBE in practice at University of Maine (Presque Isle), Salt Lake Community College, and Valdosta State University.

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