CBE and NCCCS: The Potential for Competency-Based Education in the North Carolina Community College System

Thumbnail Image




Goss, Kristin Anne

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title

Repository Usage Stats



Should the North Carolina Community College System implement Competency-Based Education, and if so, how should the organization lay the groundwork for CBE implementation? BACKGROUND: Community colleges face the challenges of ever-increasing demands on their services and declines in public funding. They are also recognizing a need to provide more effective signaling to employers related to the specific skills and capabilities students can be expected to have when completing programs. Colleges are seeking inventive and “disruptive” policy options in order to face these significant challenges. Competency-based education (CBE) is an innovative educational delivery model in the higher education context that offers one way of hypothetically substantially reducing costs per student. CBE also offers a way of assessing and reporting specific competencies that students have actively and individually demonstrated.
As with many community college systems, the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) strives to balance the priorities of increasing completion rates, maintaining open access to the wide array of potential students, and ensuring the quality of education at their institutions. The NCCCS office is considering the option of implementing a form of competency-based education in its community colleges. To inform its decision-making, NCCCS will need to understand key aspects of CBE and the factors that could most influence its own readiness for adopting CBE.
Competency-based education places its focus on directly assessing student learning to determine a student’s ability to advance through an academic program, as opposed to student’s “seat time,” which focuses on a certain number of credit hours earned. It exists in a variety of forms throughout the U.S.; this report focuses primarily on online, self-paced CBE programs that use direct assessments to evaluate student performance and determine advancement.
RESEARCH: In order to provide broad background information for NCCCS, I conducted extensive document review of policy reports from research and advocacy organizations, media coverage, and publications from institutions with CBE in place. Several common themes emerged. CBE has the potential to reduce costs and increase flexibility for students and institutions. It measures learning instead of time and ensures individual student mastery. Some critics raise concerns related to quality of learning and integrity of credentials with CBE, while proponents suggest these concerns are misguided. A number of institutions and policymakers at the local, state, and national level are currently excited about the potential for CBE. Some advocates suggest that community colleges and CBE are a natural fit, as CBE works well with adult learners and vocational programs, among other reasons.
I then selected four higher education institutions and prepared mini-case studies on their CBE programs. The mini-case studies include the following programs: Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, the Western Governors University and Broward College partnership, Northern Arizona University’s Personalized Learning program, and the University of Wisconsin System’s Flexible Option. I conducted in-depth interviews with leaders involved with CBE programs at these four institutions, including administrators and faculty members. The mini-case studies (found in Appendix C) focus on institutions’ decision making, planning, and implementation processes related to CBE.
FINDINGS: The Analysis Section provides a synthesis of the motivations, reactions, and lessons learned from the four institutions. This first provides context on institutions’ reasons for adopting CBE. Leaders then shared their take on the advantages of CBE as well as any initial concerns they might have had related to the model. Respondents also discussed strategies that worked in their favor, as well as the biggest challenges that they faced in the planning and implementation phases of CBE. I then include a section with advice from CBE institutions related to the planning and implementation phases. Highlights include:

• Create your CBE program apart from existing departments. • Target certain student populations and course subject areas, at least initially. • Hire a capable project manager, designate a creative team, and give them autonomy. • Campus leaders must take initiative and support CBE. • Faculty members’ involvement, feedback, and support are key. • CBE start-up costs are substantial; CBE should not be undertaken lightly. • Federal financial aid eligibility and accreditation can significantly affect timelines; plan accordingly.
• Community colleges may require a special touch in CBE program design.

RECOMMENDATIONS: • NCCCS should consider allowing 12-18 months to pass before taking major action in planning or implementation. If existing programs are reporting positive outcomes at that point, NCCCS should begin to plan a CBE program for its schools.
• NCCCS schools planning for the model should focus on small-scale implementation in a field that involves licensure in an area identified as in high-demand by employers. • NCCCS should develop proposals for CBE models and allow interested schools within the system to come forward. From there, NCCCS efforts could focus on “back of the house” operations methods, to be shared with all participating schools.
• Designate a full-time project manager to oversee and drive the planning and implementation phases.
• NCCCS school administrators should engage faculty members early in the process, once decisions have been reached and the project framework has been established. • NCCCS schools should include substantial pre-screening efforts to ensure that students enrolling are best suited to benefit from the CBE model. • Coordinate with the University of North Carolina system to ensure that CBE credits will transfer.
• To the extent possible, create a separate, more autonomous CBE program within a school. If feasible, hire faculty specifically to be engaged in the CBE program.





Hettinger, Margaret (2014). CBE and NCCCS: The Potential for Competency-Based Education in the North Carolina Community College System. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/8441.

Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.