What is the Current Landscape for Postsecondary Competency-Based Education in the United States?

August 3, 2021

In State of the Field: Findings From the 2020 National Survey of Postsecondary Competency-Based Education, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) shares data from its third nationwide scan. An overarching takeaway is that despite any setbacks that could have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, interest in postsecondary competency-based education has grown.

In Fall 2020, 3,217 institutions were surveyed; that’s more than two-thirds of the two- and four-year institutions listed in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. The survey had a 15.2 percent response rate – which included representation from private for-profit, private nonprofit and public institutions – and the people completing the survey included chief academic officers (39 percent), research officers (26 percent), provosts or their staff (11 percent), deans (11 percent) and other (13 percent).

What is competency-based education? While personalized learning can exist at the classroom level, competency-based education often emerges as a systemic approach to ensuring personalization across a state, community, school district and/or throughout a school.

Findings in State of the Field are focused on four areas: adoption, programs, students and the future potential of postsecondary competency-based education.

  1. Adoption of competency-based education
    The majority of postsecondary institutions surveyed about implementing competency-based education were motivated by a want to expand access to nontraditional learners, respond to workforce needs and improve learning outcomes. The adoption remains piecemeal, with institutions picking pieces and parts for competency-based education to put into action.

  2. Structure and scale of competency-based education programs

    The AIR report shows that postsecondary competency-based education programs continue to serve a relatively small number of students. The most commonly offered disciplines with this approach were nursing and health professions and business administration. Institutions reported that their competency-based programs weathered 2020 successfully and with minimal disruption. Some even showed increases in enrollment.

  3. Competency-based education programs serving students
    While State of the Field does share useful findings, the data about students seeking out these programs was the weakest, which is noted in the publication, and that further research in this area is needed. However, the data suggest that many students enrolled in these programs are adult students over the age of 25 and may enter the programs with existing higher education credits.
  4. Looking to the future of postsecondary competency-based education

    As postsecondary institutions look ahead, they still perceive substantial barriers to implementing competency-based education. These barriers vary but include competing initiatives, internal processes, start-up costs and on-campus expertise. Eighty-two percent of survey respondents say they expect postsecondary competency-based education to grow nationally, which is very much aligned with the previous two years’ research.

What's next for postsecondary competency-based education?

Understanding more about student motivation for postsecondary competency-based programs seems an essential piece to understanding the future of this approach in higher education. What happens when students experiencing competency-based education in K-12 move into higher education and want to similar experience? Will market demand further higher education competency-based options?

What is the state of postsecondary competency-based education?

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