Student Voices: Competency-Based Education Key to Improving College Completion and Career Advancement for Adult Students

This is the final installment of our Student Voices series, which features a new student story every week in September. These powerful testimonials from actual students speak to the need for a comprehensive reform of the Higher Education Act that provides greater supports and well-structured financial aid to meet the changing needs of today’s students.

By Katherine Saunders

Today, postsecondary education and credentials are critical to economic mobility. A growing number of “non-traditional” adult students are returning to institutions of higher education to obtain the education and credentials necessary to compete in today’s workforce and obtain a job with sustainable wages to support themselves and their families. Fifty-one percent of undergraduate students are independent, 44 percent are adults age 25 or older, 26 percent are parents, and 41 percent work more than 20 hours per week. In today’s labor market with employers requiring workers to hold skills and credentials, non-traditional students bring with them a significant work and life experiences. These competencies could give them a head start in a degree or certificate program.

Dustin[1], a 38-year-old father of four, graduated from high school and worked as an electrician and equipment operator until he worked his way up to an operations manager at a third-party logistics company. He left his job to move his family so his wife could pursue her education. Despite previous accomplishments in his industry, Dustin was unable to find a comparable position because he did not have a college education. “I’ve been through training,” Dustin explained, “but none of it counts because it doesn’t have a paper behind it.” Dustin enrolled in the Madison Area Technical College’s Liberal Arts Transfer Program as preparation for transferring to Business School at UW-Madison with the goal of working in the corporate sector. “I love this work,” he said. “The only thing holding me back is college.”

Dustin’s attempt to reenter the workforce highlights the plight of many returning adult students. While he had the training and work experience, his lack of a college degree hindered his career progression. Using a competency-based education (CBE) approach could be the most beneficial for Dustin and other adult students who have work experience and training, but no degree. CBE recognizes the prior learning and experience of adult learners and gives them the opportunity to apply their experiences to course work and accelerate toward degree completion and reentry into the workforce. 

CBE measures learning, not seat time, and students progress along their educational pathway by demonstrating their competency (knowledge and skills). Focusing on learning rather than time spent in a classroom can save them valuable time and money, and it makes it easier for students managing work and family responsibilities to learn on their own time and in a place of their choosing.

Similarly, Marie[2], a 40-year-old single mother, would benefit from a CBE approach. Marie worked for 14 years in the office of a large business before her daughter began having significant health problems. After excessive absences due to her daughter’s health, she was eventually dismissed from her job. When she began applying for a new job, Marie discovered she did not have the current computer skills needed to compete for the positions she wanted, so she went back to school. She is currently completing the Business Software Application Specialists Program with the simple goal of “getting a good-paying job with benefits.” As a single mom, she’d like to be able to take care of her daughter without constantly struggling. A CBE model would allow Marie to earn her credentials at her own pace, in her own home, and give her the time to take care of her daughter.

CBE has been recognized by policymakers and key stakeholders in higher education, including the US Department of Education. CLASP senior fellow Evelyn Ganzglass highlights in a brief the federal competency-based education experiments issued by the Department of Education to test three CBE approaches (prior learning assessment, competency-based education, and limited direct assessment) to improve student outcomes. CLASP commends the Department of Education for funding opportunities for CBE experiments and encourages postsecondary institutions to take advantage of the opportunity to increase college completion and career advancement among the growing number of adult students.

[1] The name of the student interviewed has been changed to ensure confidentiality.

[2] The name of the student interviewed has been changed to ensure confidentiality.