NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Competency-Based Education: Good Idea or Bad Idea?

April 15, 2015

Policymakers and higher education reform advocates have become increasingly interested in competency-based education (CBE) as a potential solution to many of the key challenges in higher education today: the escalating cost of a college degree, low completion rates, and graduates' apparent lack of career-ready skills.

A new study by American Enterprise Institute looks into employer perspectives on CBE, using a first-of-its-kind survey of nearly 500 hiring managers at different companies across the country, identifies several inherent obstacles to the expansion and acceptance of broader CBE efforts across the labor market.

Several key findings include:

  • Overall employer awareness of CBE is low, despite expanding CBE efforts and increasing efforts to engage employers.
  • Hiring managers already aware of CBE had a favorable view of the model and its graduates, but these individuals constituted a small minority.
  • Employers' lack of awareness seems to correlate with a lack of understanding of the potential benefits to employers of hiring students educated through CBE programs.
  • Employers remain generally unable to articulate discrete needs as competencies; they rely instead on hiring generalizations grounded in the traditional idea of "fit" that lack the specificity needed to create an effective competency map.
  • Some employers believe that this generalized approach helps them hire the right people, but nearly two-thirds think that they could be doing better at identifying students with the specific skill set required for the job.

Results suggest competency-based programs must acknowledge the potential for some of their strongest selling points — reduced time to degree, affordability, and increased flexibility — to affect employers' perceptions of the programs. In marketing themselves to students as "faster, cheaper, and more flexible," CBE programs risk marginalizing a vital link in their compelling value proposition: the employers.

Institutions offering CBE programs should embrace this opportunity, partnering closely with employers to bridge the traditional divide between academia and the labor market.

Source: Chip Franklin and Robert Lytle, "Employer Perspectives On Competency-Based Education," American Enterprise Institute, April 2015. 


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