A more comprehensive version is available in EDUCAUSE Review, co-authored with Dr. Deborah Bushway, Chief Academic Officer and Vice President of Academic Innovation at Capella University.

Investments in competency based education make sense as our nation strives to educate an increasingly diverse population. With hundreds of new competency based education programs in development, now is a critical time to consider what constitutes quality in these programs and why quality is worth the investment. Organizations such as C-BEN (Competency-Based Education Network) are working to integrate and coordinate these emerging quality conversations. Approaches vary based on the goals of different institutions, but key characteristics of quality in competency based education are solid curricular architecture, valid and reliable assessments, and comprehensive student success resources.

Curricular Architecture

Quality competency based education programs clearly define what constitutes a credential, as well as the corresponding transparent articulation of a competency framework supporting that credential.Clarity and transparency enable academic leaders, faculty, students, and employers to understand what a competency based credential represents and how it helps them achieve their goals.

Credential Definition

Conferral of competency based credentials depends on demonstration of defined sets of competencies rather than accumulation of credits. Learning outcomes (or competencies) have typically taken a back seat to courses and credits when defining credential requirements. In competency based education programs, this is reversed: demonstration of competencies becomes the driver for credentials.

Today, competency based education also uses credit hours. Even credentials earned through the “direct assessment” language in the U.S. federal financial aid guidelines must establish learning outcomes that demonstrate “equivalency” back to the credit hour standard. This equivalency provides value and ensures that competency based credentials work in our current educational ecosystems. Credit hours support students’ needs for employer reimbursement, transfer among institutions, and admission to other academic programs. Competency/credit hour crosswalks also contribute to the transparency of competency based education programs and make their learning outcomes more interoperable.

Competency Framework

A well-defined competency framework is the bedrock of a competency based program and guides the development of the curriculum. This framework, combined with a clear credential definition, creates a curricular architecture, ensuring that the learning demonstrated in competency based programs represents the entire “form” or Gestalt of a credential — an integration of theory and practice at an appropriate level for the credential conferred.

Competency frameworks clearly state what a person will be able to do on completing the credential, thus allowing students, employers, and other stakeholders to set their expectations appropriately. A competency framework must be rooted in accepted standards at the credential level as well as within the profession or discipline to which it applies. Competency based curricular development begins by identifying existing relevant, agreed-upon standards for the credential level, the discipline, the profession, and the needs of relevant employers. Faculty and curriculum development teams synthesize these standards into clear, measureable competencies at the academic program level.

In competency based education programs that have a clear, well-defined curricular architecture,

  • Academic leaders understand how the credential fits into the institution’s mission and goals.
  • Faculty understand how to define and deliver the curriculum as well as how to assess demonstration of competency to achieve the defined learning outcomes.
  • Students understand the whole framework of competencies as well as the individual competencies and what they will learn as part of earning the credential.
  • Employers understand the competencies and holistic body of knowledge achieved by graduates in the program.

Valid and Reliable Assessments

Robust and valid methods of assessing a learner’s demonstration of competency is another quality lynchpin in competency based education. Academic leaders, faculty, students, and employers all need to have confidence in competency assessments — that they are reliable and appropriate to stakeholders’ goals. These assessments must be deeply aligned to the competencies and designed to clearly assess students’ abilities to perform the relevant intellectual and behavioral tasks.

Authentic Assessment

Authentic assessment approximates demonstration of the competency in the real world — workplace or community — requiring a work product very similar to the type of work product an employer would expect. For example, in an authentic assessment a student would be asked to analyze a balance sheet rather than answering a set of questions about components of balance sheets.

An important component in authentic assessment is the consistent use of a standard rubric by the assessors. This practice allows all stakeholders (students, faculty, employers, other institutions of higher education, funders, and regulators) to see the criteria for evaluation and the levels of achievement per criteria, providing genuine understanding of what competencies the learners have gained in the learning experience.

In competency based education programs that have valid, reliable assessments,

  • Academic leaders understand the rigor of student performance represented by the credential.
  • Faculty understand how to define, deliver, and judge performance on assessments to achieve the defined learning outcomes.
  • Students understand how they will be assessed and what type of feedback they will receive.
  • Employers have confidence that graduates have demonstrated defined competencies.

Comprehensive Student Success Resources

Subject-matter guidance and comprehensive, just-in-time, personalized support are essential to students in competency based programs. Because competency based education does not rely on time structures and deadlines, students have much more flexibility but also require other types of structures to scaffold their individualized learning pathways.


Faculty are central to learning and assessment in competency based education programs. The expertise faculty bring from their disciplines and professions is crucial, and quality competency based education programs leverage this expertise to bring the highest value to both students and faculty. Faculty feedback and guidance for students regarding their progress toward demonstration of competencies is a mainstay in high-quality competency based programs.


In self-paced competency models, an institutional “touchstone” becomes essential for student success. High-quality programs provide a guide for the student, often referred to as a coach. A coach is often assigned to the student at entry and stays with the student throughout progress toward a credential.


As students move through the content of a competency based education program, construct their demonstrations of competency to authentic assessments, and receive faculty feedback regarding their performance, they often need additional subject matter support. Tutors serve this role, either for the specific competency/subject with which the learner is working or for broad, cross-cutting competencies such as critical writing.

360 Student Support

360 support serves the student as a whole person, typically including technical support but also other types, such as financial aid guidance, help finding “life services” (e.g., child care and transportation), and credential and career planning (for this and other definitions, see Clarifying Competency based Education Terms: A Lexicon, developed in collaboration with the American Council on Education,). If institutions do not invest in these types of services, post-traditional students are less likely to succeed.

In competency based education programs that have comprehensive student success resources,

  • Academic leaders have confidence in the support structures in place for student retention and success.
  • Faculty understand their role and their collaboration with others to help students achieve the defined learning outcomes.
  • Students have the support they need for different aspects of their educational experience.
  • Employers have confidence that expert guidance and feedback have provided appropriate structure for graduates’ learning accomplishments.

Competency based education programs require substantial investments and often new and/or redefined business models. Curricular architecture, valid assessments, and appropriate student supports, when done well, necessitate significant commitments in human resources and strong leadership as well as monetary investments. In order to produce well-qualified graduates who can demonstrate competencies that are relevant and valid, academic leaders need to consider the needs of the interrelated stakeholders in the ecosystems served by these programs. In-depth analysis of stakeholders’ needs and a focus on learning outcomes provide opportunities for rethinking the goals of academic programs and how best to serve increasingly diverse student constituencies. The resulting competency based education approaches will vary, but key quality considerations provide a common ground for improving educational opportunities.

See also:

Advancing Competency Based Education with the American Council on Education

Clarifying Competency Based Education Terms

Competency Based Learning and Learner-Centric Shifts in Education

Competency Based Learning, with the Focus on Learning

3 Key Characteristics of Competency Based Learning

Competency Based Learning Key Characteristic: Learner-Centric

Competency Based Learning Key Characteristic: Outcomes-Based

Competency Based Learning Key Characteristic: Differentiated


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