Eleven Areas Impacted by Competency-Based Education at an Institution

Originally posted on September 14, 2016 at Blackboard

 Developing and implementing competency-based education (CBE) programs involve more than just curricular considerations and changes; they impact and can change both the academic and non-academic policies and practices across an institution. Today we are taking a look at understanding the impact that CBE can have on an institution, later posts will focus on the need and complexities of determining a business model for the CBE program and managing the change that CBE brings to institutions.

Understand the impact of CBE on your institution

Because the instructional model at the heart of CBE often appears to be so radically different than traditional modalities, it’s easy to assume that the biggest changes created by CBE are on the academic side of the house. But CBE touches every part of an institution, from faculty to academic services to the business office to admissions and financial aid. Not addressing these changes early can kill a CBE program before it even gets off the ground. Let’s take a look at how CBE might impact each section of an institution.

Admissions and Enrollment Management

Many CBE programs are aimed at working adult students, a population that most institutions do not have a lot of experience recruiting. Marketing messages that work for traditional age students don’t work for working adults. Admissions offices will need to develop and deliver new marketing materials to recruit CBE students. Additionally, traditional admissions policies like SAT/ACT requirements may not make as much sense for working adults in CBE programs.

My favorite example of this phenomenon is the challenge that one program recently encountered when enrolling a retired veteran and business executive. The individual in question wanted to return to school and complete his bachelor’s degree. But when he inquired about the admissions requirements for the CBE program, he was told that he had to produce a high school diploma along with a transcript of any prior college level coursework. On the surface, this appears to be a perfectly reasonable policy. Why wouldn’t you want a student to produce a high school transcript? But in this case, it wasn’t possible; the diploma from 40 years ago was lost and the school’s records had been destroyed in a fire. Intervention from the program’s director was required before the individual could enroll.

Financial Aid

Financial aid can be especially challenging for flexibly paced CBE programs. Although the Department of Education has made accommodations for students enrolled in direct assessment CBE programs to receive Title IV financial aid, most CBE programs do not operate as direct assessment programs for a number of reasons. As a result, institutions are left trying to find a way to adapt their current satisfactory academic progress policies that are based on fixed calendars and course loads to flexibly paced academic programs.


Flexibly paced competency-based programs often operate on a different calendar than traditional programs. As a result, business systems and processes involving billing, payment schedules, etc. will need to be addressed and adapted.


Some of the biggest structural challenges of implementing CBE occur in the registrar’s office. For example, will the program be transcripting courses or competencies? Will grades or master/non-mastery appear on the transcript? How will student completion be reported to the registrar’s office?

Institutional Research

With great scrutiny focused on CBE programs, institutions must consider the metrics that will be used to assess quality as well as the ways in which data reporting for the CBE program may differ than other campus programs. How will IR help programs collect that data and how will that data be used by IR for reporting to state and federal agencies? 

Instructional Design

Even under the best of circumstances, many institutions do not have adequate instructional design resources to help faculty and subject matter experts develop new programs and courses. But instructional design is an especially critical element in CBE programs as faculty deconstruct existing syllabi, create competencies and subcompetencies, and work to align curriculum and assessments. Not only will faculty need training and professional development on how to develop and implement CBE, but instructional designers will also need to develop CBE expertise. 

Information Technology

Many institutions must deal daily with the challenges that come as a result of splicing together legacy systems that were never meant to operate as a cohesive system. Adding competency-based programs into the mix, especially direct assessment programs or non-course based competency programs, can create significant stress on an institution’s systems and staff. That stress can be compounded as many CBE programs are meant to scale quickly.

Academic & Student Support Services

Just like any other student, CBE students need access to a variety of services like the library, tutorial centers, disability services, and veteran affairs offices. And although many of these services may have already been converted for online student access, the pacing and focus of CBE programs may require additional modifications to make these services available to CBE students. For example, veteran affairs offices, used to applying benefits to traditional programs, may encounter challenges counseling students on how benefits apply to CBE programs. Or tutoring centers that rely on face-to-face services may be ill-suited to the sort of on-demand services that flexible-paced CBE students need.


I have written a blog post on the ways in which CBE can impact faculty that goes into this area in much greater depth. Here, I’d like to highlight the faculty-related policy and administrative challenges that CBE can pose. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is determining how faculty workload and compensation in CBE will be determined. Unlike traditional workload policies that are based upon FTE and SCH calculations, faculty CBE workload can be more complicated. How do you determine workload when a faculty member may be working with a number of students who are at different points throughout the term? If an institution has tenure and is using full-time faculty, how will CBE fit into tenure and promotion?

Career Services

One of the campus offices that could be the most impacted by CBE is career services. While many career service offices are designed to work with relatively young and inexperienced students who are early in their careers, the working adults that CBE programs often attract may be well-established professionals. For these students the goal is not to score their first career-related job, they are looking for assistance in getting promotions or making mid-career transitions. Campus job fairs or the traditional round of campus job interviews will likely be of little use to working adult CBE students.


A central component of many CBE programs is the role that advising/coaching/mentoring plays in the program. In these programs dedicated advisors are responsible for tracking student progress, assuring student retention and success, providing students with academic and emotional support, and helping students navigate a flexibly paced education environment. Unlike what happens in many traditional programs, advisors work with CBE students weekly in order to assure that they are making satisfactory academic progress. For institutions where faculty serve as advisors, creating new policies, job descriptions, and even compensation schedules will be an important consideration before launching a CBE program.

There is no doubt that competency-based education can be a transformative experience for students and institutions. But if institutions want to assure that they create a high-quality, sustainable CBE program, they must consider the ways in which CBE impacts all aspects of an institution. As my colleague Karen Yoshino points out in her post titled 3 things to get right when designing CBE programs, institutions should:

  • Nail down competencies
  • Use the instructional model to drive the technology
  • Bring the right people to the table

However, all of the academic work of creating a CBE program will be for naught if institutions do not also address the institutional challenges that CBE brings. CBE programs impact every aspect of an institution and have the potential to help institutions transform into truly learner-centered environments.