For decades, calls to transform education have revolved around a few major themes — the value versus the cost of learning experiences, skills-based workforce alignment, and making learning more equitable through better learning design. There are many notable solutions that address one or two of these challenges. Yet, none has done as much to address all three as competency-based education (CBE). Here, we examine each of these challenges and how CBE helps to answer them.

Making College ROI Clearer

College remains costly and student loan debt high. At the same time, news reports and think pieces questioning the value of college continue to stack up. Despite continued reports of the long-lasting impact of a college degree, more students are choosing not to enroll in college. The biggest drops are in populations of Indigenous people. All of this punctuates the ways students have lost confidence in the tradeoff between what college costs and what they get in return. It’s incumbent on colleges, universities, and other learning providers to redefine what higher education means and make the return on investment clearer.

How CBE Answers

CBE is based on employer-informed industry competencies. Learners better understand how their coursework prepares them for their next course and their next job. This is powerful. There is immeasurable value in teaching students lifelong skills. Traditional programs have made it a cornerstone of their offering. But what remains less clear to students is the immediate return. CBE shows students the relevance of their coursework. Courses make a direct connection for students between the competencies they master and the next step. It’s a level of transparency that can be very motivating for students.

Closing the Skills Gap

Employers are questioning the requirements of degrees aimed at preparing workers. This is especially true in industries that are experiencing worker shortages, such as manufacturing and healthcare, and professions like electricians and HVAC technicians. In these career paths and others, workers need technical skills alongside critical skills like teamwork and communication. At the same time, higher education is not structured to support the continuous work-learn-work cycle the modern workforce requires. This challenge hurts employers and workers alike. For employers, the worker shortage grows; and for workers the pathways to solid middle-class lifestyles remain out of reach.

How CBE Answers

CBE starts with industry-defined competencies. Then using backward design, learning experts map those competencies to assessments and learning activities. The model keeps the curriculum centered on competency mastery and creates workforce alignment. The results are impressive. According to research from the John Hopkins School of Education, mastery-based approaches to instruction can make stronger connections between students and their learning. The research documents improvements in how well students perceive their own ability to learn, increases in students’ ability to develop a growth mindset, and substantial enhancement of long-term learning retention. Students can also more easily stack credentials or specializations for continued alignment to the needs of employers.

Learning Designed for All Learners

In higher education, learning content has traditionally been created outside of conversations around learner needs, motivations, and equity. As a result, the system has left out many students based on institutional inequities, limited or outdated views on the profiles of current students, and individual needs, contexts, or barriers.

How CBE Answers

CBE designers employ user-centered design to inform assessments and learning activities. They consider the learner’s prior knowledge, the problems they face, and their motivations to create more equitable and accessible learning experiences.

This approach — putting the learners at the center of learning design — makes CBE incredibly beneficial. It goes beyond moving around parts of traditional learning experiences or putting a new name on the same strategy. Instead, CBE directly links students’ needs with their goals to design experiences that open access to learning