Expand competency-based education to support adult learners


Students enrolling in higher education are more diverse in age, race, and income than any previous generation. Unlike the full-time traditional student, they are juggling multiple responsibilities, including full and part-time work, child or elder care, military, and community service.

Emerging research shows that direct assessment, competency-based education (CBE) may be an effective way to meet their educational needs faster. While its adoption in higher education has steadily increased in recent years, we can and should do more to accelerate its adoption.

About Competency-Based Learning

CBE allows students to acquire and demonstrate knowledge, skills, and professional dispositions by engaging through learning exercises, activities, and experiences that align with clearly defined and pre-determined programmatic outcomes.

Its flexible learning model permits learners to earn credentials by demonstrating mastery through multiple forms of assessment. The best competency-based programs are also designed to develop and measure high-demand skills, enabling graduates to clearly demonstrate their capabilities to employers.

About Direct Assessment

Capella University offers a direct assessment, CBE model called FlexPath. This model allows the learner to demonstrate mastery of a topic and move immediately on to the next course, rather than rely on credit hours or seat time as the basis for awarding credit. In addition, direct assessment programs like Capella’s provide even greater flexibility for students, allowing them to finish a course and move on to the next when they are ready. This is especially beneficial for adult learners, whose busy schedules may necessitate spending more time in a course or completing a course quickly to gain the skills and credentials they may need for career advancement.

The Data

A rigorous analysis of the outcomes of students participating in FlexPath indicated that the direct assessment approach to CBE can help accelerate completion and improve learning outcomes for all adult learners.1

Here is what we found:

  • The median time to complete for FlexPath bachelor’s programs was 50% faster than similar learners in equivalent Capella credit-hour bachelor’s programs.
  • The median time to complete for FlexPath master’s programs was 36% faster than similar learners in equivalent Capella credit-hour master’s programs.
  • The median federal financial aid borrowed by a bachelor’s FlexPath learner was 58% less than for similar borrowers in the equivalent Capella credit-hour programs.
  • The median tuition billed to a bachelor’s FlexPath learner was $11,550. This is 65% less than a similar learner in an equivalent Capella credit-hour program.
  • The median tuition billed to a master’s FlexPath learner was $14,400. This is 45% less than a similar learner in an equivalent Capella credit-hour program.

Importantly, in a separate analysis using similar statistical methods, we found that both Black and white learners are benefiting from FlexPath.

Accelerating CBE

These recent findings show that direct assessment, CBE can have a considerable impact on the outcomes of all learners. While higher education has a long way to go to fully embrace this promising innovation and bring it to scale, there is a growing excitement around it.

In fact, former U.S. Department of Education Undersecretary and current American Council on Education President Ted Mitchell called CBE “the single-most-important innovation in higher education.” And, a 2020 survey from the American Institutes for Research and the Competency-Based Education Network found that more than 82% of higher education professionals surveyed expected CBE to grow nationally over the next five years.

Below are five recommendations on how practitioners and policymakers can accelerate the adoption of direct assessment, CBE while ensuring its place as an effective tool to better serve all learners.

  1. Reimagine Financial Aid – Traditional financial aid rules, built on outdated metrics like credit hours and seat time, often rule out direct assessment programs based on CBE. We need to reimagine the finances of higher education to allow for more flexible, affordable, personalized programs.
  2. Release and Evaluate Data – To fully gauge the impact direct assessment, CBE programs can have on closing attainment gaps, we need more data. Other institutions should analyze their programs and release those findings to further higher education’s shared understanding of the true potential of direct assessment, CBE.
  3. Couple with Support – Self-paced doesn’t mean students should be left to navigate their education on their own. The best programs are supported by a robust system of student services and resources. Direct assessment, CBE programs should be paired with hyper-personalized advising, coaching, and other support services. Importantly, these resources should be easily accessible wherever and whenever busy learners need them most.
  4. Align with DE&I Initiatives The events of the last two years have galvanized higher education, and colleges and universities are doubling down on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Institutions should position CBE programs as explicit and important components of this work. When implemented thoughtfully, direct assessment, CBE programs can help avoid the implicit bias plaguing much of higher education, leading to stronger outcomes for all students.
  5. Expand Credit for Prior Learning Direct assessment programs exist along a continuum of solutions that help learners demonstrate competency. Chief among those is credit for prior learning (CPL), which seeks to recognize college-level learning that students have acquired before enrolling at an institution, including from their careers and military training. CPL has long been associated with better student outcomes for adult learners, including higher credential completion and cost and time savings, yet it is still vastly underused.

Direct assessment, CBE is still in its early days, and the evaluation of its impact is only just emerging, yet the evidence is clear: It’s time to remove barriers and pick up the pace on rolling out CBE so that more adult learners can benefit from it.


[1]. Capella used a propensity score matching methodology in comparing FlexPath and GuidedPath students, adhering to prevailing standards for reliability. See page 10 for details on how this information was calculated. Although this information reflects the typical experience of a FlexPath student, competency-based, direct-assessment programs are inherently flexible, allowing for a wide range of student experiences. Capella is careful to educate prospective students that their own experience in the program will depend on a variety of factors, including how many transfer credits they bring and how quickly they move through their coursework. Outcome metrics are measured for students who started and completed their program between 2015 and 2021.


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