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Three Ways CBE Could Turn Underprepared Learners into College Graduates

Competency-based education

Traditional higher education is increasingly insufficient for many adults seeking workforce success and economic mobility, especially for students whose skills are not yet college ready. It has become critical for learners, postsecondary institutions, and employers to explore new options.

Competency-based education (CBE) holds significant promise in closing the gap between the skills adults have and the abilities they need to thrive in today’s economy. Yet, despite the rapid growth of CBE across the country, millions of adult learners are unable to take advantage of these new approaches, because most CBE programs are designed for people who are already well prepared for college-level coursework.

Jobs for the Future (JFF) is investigating, uncovering, and positing what CBE programs would look like and could achieve if they were adapted to meet the needs of our least prepared adult learners. With generous support from the ECMC Foundation, JFF is reaching out to national experts, policymakers, and practitioners to help identify key issues that can frame a national conversation about expanding access and increasing postsecondary success for adults who need to improve basic math and literacy skills.

JFF’s new report, Next Generation CBE: Designing Competency-Based Education for Underprepared College Learners, is the first in a new series that will zero in on the all-important question of how to design CBE in order to help this economically vulnerable population.

As the report notes, there are no universal rules about what makes a program “competency based.” However, there are several common threads: Generally, students progress through the curriculum at their own pace, based on the time they have available and their ability to demonstrate specific competencies. Students who fall short receive targeted assistance and can try again (more than once, if necessary) to show they have mastered a competency.

The approach is a stark contrast to traditional college programs, where students typically advance to the next course at the end of the semester, regardless of how well they understand the content or perform certain skills, so long as they earn a passing grade.

Here are three key ways that CBE can help advance the college, career, and life prospects of underprepared adult learners:

1. Flexibility: CBE can offer a variety of educational paths toward credential attainment, with initial placement based on multiple kinds of assessments, rather than a single standardized test, and completion based on mastery of required competencies, rather than time spent in a classroom.

2. Customization: CBE curriculum and instruction can be designed to meet individual learning needs and interests. Students can learn at the pace—and often in the location (when a mix of online and in-person delivery)—that works best for each individual. Academic and psychosocial supports can be tailored to individual needs and circumstances.

3. Mastery: CBE can offer students the opportunity to advance at any time they are able to demonstrate a competency, rather than only at the end of a term. Students are required to show a firm grasp of content and skills before they move on to new topics.

Blended together, these elements have the ability to remove barriers to success and increase motivation, engagement, and persistence. In other words, they can create an incredibly powerful, effective approach to learning.

The time has come to design, implement and test competency-based education models that provide access and quality learning opportunities for our nation’s most underprepared and historically underserved learners. We will provide the field a voice, perspective, answers, and a way forward; we welcome your feedback and experiences. Join us and be part of the solution.

JFF intern Taylor Maag contributed to this post. Read the full publication.