Sparks Fly: Competency-Based Education Catches

04/15/2015 03:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015

As readers of my blog posts know, I have devoted a large part of my life to proselytizing about making quality and affordable education available to the working adults who need it the most. I do not use the word proselytizing lightly. It has been a constant struggle to get this work to be viewed as fundamental to education reform, not just as a passing trend.

The effort to create workforce-relevant education has had many incarnations and iterations -- school-to-career partnerships, career pathways, and efforts to close the middle-skills gap, to name a few. While these innovations have resulted in some promising outcomes, garnering the support of policymakers and practitioners alike, they have barely moved the needle. Employers still rage about the skills gap. Our educational outcomes -- particularly for lower-wage workers -- remain abysmal. And, our quality of life is suffering -- the Social Progress Index 2015 ranks the U.S. 16th in the world on that measure.

And, yet, I see a glimmer of hope. With a promising new trend, a little spark has finally caught and is lighting the way for the cause: Competency-based education (CBE), which is designed to provide students with the skills they need to be successful in the workplace is taking hold.

Two years ago, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) hired me to help start a competency-based college aimed to support working adults and their employers. SNHU already had a hugely successful online program, but our visionary president, Dr. Paul LeBlanc, had concluded there was also a place for a workforce-relevant liberal arts college. The new effort was to be called College for America.

Anyone following the CBE discussions has heard about its benefits for working adults. CBE programs advance students based on mastery of competencies needed in the workplace. They are affordable (ours is $2,500 a year). They can help workers advance and companies address their skills needs. Because they do not have to be tied to the classroom and can be offered online, sometimes through real-world projects, they are a good fit for hard-pressed adults who need skills and credentials to climb the employment ladder. As employers become aware of CBE's positive bottom-line impact, they are increasingly becoming advocates. And, educational institutions have yet another format for delivering content and educating their students.

Today, 34 colleges are offering CBE programs, and hundreds more are developing them. According to a recent report from the American Enterprise Institute, the nine CBE colleges that have student demographic data available enroll about 140,000 undergraduate and 57,000 graduate students. And there is plenty of room for growth. The 35 million working Americans with no credentials beyond high school or college would be ripe for CBE.

The rise of CBE is also reflected in the media coverage. Two years ago there were lots of stories and debate in the education press. Publications such as Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of Higher Education have closely tracked the development of CBE.

The change? Now, in the last several months, the mainstream media has started to pick up our story -- not with the traditional status-quo-challenger tone of "ain't that quaint," but rather taking CBE as a serious option. It has cemented into the part of the conversation of what higher education should be. In just the past two weeks, there has been an article in The Boston Globe describing Partners HealthCare's initiative to make college free or nearly free for its workers; a piece in US News & World Report titled "4 Tips to Finish an Online, Competency-Based Degree", and an editorial on touting the benefits of CBE versus traditional education.

This is hardly an avalanche -- but it is a definitely an increase in volume and change in tone. And where one mainstream media organization goes, others tend to follow.

But there is more. Beyond the media, there is a development that foreshadows an even bigger push for CBE: that visionary leader, SNHU President Paul Le Blanc, who started College for America, has taken a leave from his position for three months to help the U.S. Department of Education work out policy related to federal financial aid and alternative paths to accreditation for CBE.

Much work is left to do -- a new American Enterprise Institute report says too few businesses still understand CBE. But that too is changing. I have found in the last six months that whole industries are suddenly eager to hear about CBE with a "where have you been?" reception. Ironically, these are the same audiences I have gone hoarse preaching to in the past. The spark has lit and is gaining ground.

Numbers, media, government. It sure feels like we are finally heading in the same direction, not being led by just an interesting concept, but actually becoming a part of the conversation.