ATD Blog

5 Best Practices for Building a Competency-Based Education Program

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Competency-based education (CBE) continues to gain much deserved credit and momentum in the business and education sectors. In a January 2016 Forbes article, Barbara Kurshan writes, “Compared to current models of education, competency-based education makes it easier for adult learners to leverage their experiences to learn new skills that will give them access to new opportunities.” Her article espouses the benefits of using higher education—specifically competency-based education—to bridge skills and employment gaps. It’s becoming increasingly clear competencies are key to aligning education and training with actual business needs.

And education is responding. According to Inside Higher Ed, as of September 2015, roughly 600 colleges are designing a CBE program, are in the process of creating one, or already offer one. In 2014, only 52 institutions were on the spectrum.

Given the velocity of its adoption and my work with one of the premier competency-based programs in the country, I am asked frequently how we build our CBE programs at College for America. It’s been a few years since we went live, and I think CfA has developed and refined a process that is getting good results.

To further the momentum of competency-based education, I’d like to share some of the best practices we use when developing new CBE degree programs. Not a college? Not a problem. These practices apply to training programs too.

Understand the Labor Market

“Build it and they will come” will not work—you need to build your CBE programs to meet specific needs, bridge skills gaps, and solve classic soft skills problems. When building a new degree, we use sources such as Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the O*NET database of occupational information, and real-time data tools—including Burning Glass Labor Insight—to look at projected industry growth, occupational trends, and shifting demographics. By understanding the challenges and growth of markets and populations, we can determine where the needs are and how higher education can help.

Know the Competencies

What knowledge, skills, and abilities are consistently missing from employees’ arsenals? What changes are driving the need for new competencies, and are they temporary or fluid changes? These are questions we ask when exploring the needs of employers. We look to build competencies that are definable, measurable, and have the longest shelf life so that employees and employers see tremendous value from their investments.


For example, the need for critical thinking, communication, and collaboration arises from employers year after year. So we ensure that our Associate of Arts in General Studies students “can generate original, innovative solutions to problems” and “can spot patterns and trends as well as make connections among seemingly unrelated information.”

As another example, the healthcare industry has been rapidly and continually evolving. To respond to changes driven by the Affordable Care Act and institutionalized as best practices, we ensure that our Bachelor of Arts in Healthcare Management students “can compare and contrast private and public models of financing and delivering healthcare services.”

We do much of this work to uncover and define necessary competencies manually, but the long-hours are about to change: The Center for Employability Outcomes at Texas State Technical College has developed a process for matching what is taught in the classroom with skills in demand in business and industry.

Get Some Input

The most direct route to identifying the right competencies for a degree (or other) program is to speak with people who do the job and those who supervise the people who do the job. While HR staff can be helpful, they are often several steps removed from operations. However, the smaller the organization, the more likely it is that HR can provide the granular insights you need.

Of course, look to academic and training experts to help build curricula once you know what competencies you want to include in your programs.


Play to Your Strengths

When you look at the labor market and education through the lens of competencies, it begins to look expansive and a bit overwhelming. To respond and regain control, exert discipline. If your expertise as an educational institution or company is in accounting, don't try to develop a program for training rocket scientists just because accountants and rockets scientists both need to solve complex math problems.

Ground in Data

As with any development arm, we never set and forget our “products”—CBE degree programs in our case. Once we build and enroll students in our programs, we measure predetermined relevant criteria to realize whether we’ve been successful.

Because the success of College for America’s CBE programs and business-education partnerships relies on the outcomes of both employees and their employers, we have two type of metrics. The first is student-focused; we measure pace of mastery, time to degree, graduation rates, and effect on career. The second is employer-focused; we measure retention, promotion, and employee and employer satisfaction.

Depending on your institution and definitions of success, your key performance indicators may be different. However, by establishing them before you implement your program, you will have an unbiased measuring stick for the success of your CBE program.

I hope you find these practices helpful as you build your own CBE programs. Please share your own insights and strategies in the comments below.

About the Author

Julian L. Alssid, Chief Workforce Strategist at College for America at Southern New Hampshire University, is a nationally recognized expert in workforce development innovation and policy. He has over 20 years of experience working with decision makers who seek to grow the economy and create a pipeline of skilled talent. Prior to joining College for America, Julian founded the Workforce Strategy Center, where he advised over 20 states on workforce policy and established himself as a leader in promoting effective, practical solutions for implementing career pathways initiatives. Julian has also held senior positions in education and workforce development at the New York City Partnership and Chamber of Commerce (now the Partnership for New York City), LaGuardia Community College, and the Office of the Mayor of New York City.

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Good insights, Thanks for sharing these best practices tips!
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