National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment |

National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment

Occasional Paper 20 - Sharpening Our Focus on Learning: The Rise of Competency-Based Approaches to Degree Completion


DQP Cover

Klein-Collins, R. (2013, November). Sharpening our focus on learning: The rise of competency-based approaches to degree completion. (Occasional Paper No. 20). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.  


In NILOA's twentieth occasional paper, author Rebecca Klein-Collins, Senior Director of Research and Policy Development for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), discusses the methodology, practices, and policies surrounding competency-based education.

Paper Abstract

This occasional paper by Rebecca Klein-Collins examines competency-based education in the higher education system. The author defines a competency-based education as one that focuses on what students know and can do rather than how they learned it or how long it took to learn it. This paper defines unifying concepts shared by different competency-based education programs, describes current competency-based models using the direct assessment approach, and examines the national policy context that could determine the extent to which these programs are able to go to scale. The author argues that competency-based education provides an opportunity to rethink what a college degree means for student learning while addressing concerns regarding higher education’s quality and cost. 

Biography of the Author

Becky Klein-Collins is the Senior Director of Research and Policy Development for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), overseeing research in topics related to higher education innovations, prior learning assessment, competency-based education, non-traditional learners, and workforce development. She assists in developing new approaches for state and federal policy change, speaks regularly to national audiences on various topics related to adult learners, and authors numerous articles and policy papers for CAEL.

Klein-Collins has a bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College and master’s degrees from Indiana University and the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.


For more information on competency-based education, please read these reports from Rebecca Klein-Collins.

Klein-Collins, R. & Baylor, E. (2013, November). Meeting students where they are: Profiles of students in competency-based degree programs. Center for Americna Progress.

Klein-Colllins, R. (2012). Competency-based degree programs in the US: Postsecondary credentials for measurable student learning and performance. Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

Klein-Collins, R., Ikenberry, S.O., & Kuh, G.D.(2014, January/February). Competency-based education: What the board needs to know. Trusteeship Magazine, 22(1).