Embracing Competency-Based Education to Differentiate Your Institution

“The older I get, the greater power I seem to have to help the world; I am like a snowball – the further I am rolled the more I gain.”

Susan B. Anthony

In the evolving landscape of higher education, alternative forms of education are gaining traction. Embracing these trends not only differentiates institutions to prospective students but also re-engages alumni and those who have previously paused their education. These approaches can significantly enhance your institution’s appeal and success.

The Rise of Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education (CBE) is increasingly recognized for its potential to provide tailored learning experiences that align closely with students’ career goals. The bipartisan Empowering Learners Through Competency-Based Education Act, supported by notable institutions like Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University, underscores the growing importance of this approach. As the legislation states, “the measurement of learning in place of the measurement of time … is an efficient, effective, and rigorous form of postsecondary education.” This legislation aims to streamline CBE implementation, making it easier for students to learn at their own pace, reduce student loan debt, and swiftly transition into meaningful careers​​.

For institutions, adopting CBE can be a significant differentiator. Highlighting your institution’s commitment to innovative, student-centered learning models can attract prospective students who are keen on flexible, outcome-oriented education. Furthermore, past students who may have paused their education (or “stopped out”) might find these programs appealing as they offer a practical, accelerated path to completing their degrees as their lives have inevitably changed from their initial enrollment and a traditional four-year experience.

Leveraging Active Learning and Student Wellness

Institutions like the University of Georgia are pioneering active learning techniques, which involve students in constructing knowledge rather than passively consuming it. This method has been shown to improve learning outcomes and reduce performance gaps, especially for underrepresented students​​. Promoting these efforts signals to prospective students that your institution is committed to innovative teaching practices that support diverse learning needs.

Additionally, integrating educational experiences with student wellness initiatives can set your institution apart. With rising concerns over student mental health, institutions that invest in comprehensive support systems for both students and staff are positioning themselves as caring and proactive educational environments​​. Yale’s adaptation of its popular “Psychology of Happiness” course for teens is an excellent example of how focusing on student well-being can be a powerful draw.

Embracing Digital Credentials and Lifelong Learning

The shift towards digital verifiable credentials, as seen with ASU’s Trusted Learner Network, and discussed by our recent piece, “College-Corporate Collaboration: A Strategic Advantage,” reflects the need for flexible and portable learning achievements​​. These credentials allow students to manage and showcase their skills and accomplishments in a way that is both verifiable and easily transferable between institutions and employers. Promoting such innovations can attract students who value the ability to control their educational narrative and seamlessly integrate their learning into their professional lives.

Moreover, lifelong learning is becoming essential in today’s fast-evolving job market. Institutions that offer programs supporting continuous education and upskilling are more likely to attract and retain students and alumni looking to stay competitive. Highlighting partnerships with businesses to provide relevant and in-demand courses, as seen with Arizona State University’s CareerCatalyst, can further enhance your institution’s appeal​​.

Integrating AI in Education

“I thought, right away, this is going to change personalized learning,” said Ajjan, associate dean at Elon University’s Love School of Business about Open AI’s latest Chat GPT-4o. Science Fiction Author, Neal Stephenson predicted an adaptive learning experience guided by AI in his novel, The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer in which individuals were able to explore subjects and learn at a pace that was appropriate for their past experiences and current knowledge. 

Creating flexible learning paths that focus on skills that are mapped to learning outcomes can provide learners and the educational partners willing to embrace them, with a powerful learning experience. There are early versions of this emerging with stackable credentials and the continued exploration and development of these innovative methodologies will lead to even better adoption and outcomes.

Differentiation by embracing change

By embracing alternative forms of education such as competency-based education, active learning, digital credentials, and AI, institutions can effectively differentiate themselves to both prospective students and alumni. These innovative approaches not only enhance the educational experience but also align with the evolving needs and preferences of today’s learners. As the landscape of higher education continues to change, institutions that adapt and promote these trends will likely see increased engagement and success in attracting a diverse and committed student body.