CBE and employability: building a comprehensive strategy

Adult male working on a laptop while surrounded by leather wallets

It seems the most popular sessions at any higher education conference over the past few years have been about either competency-based education (CBE), employability, or both. Neither topic is exactly new, and both are inextricably linked to common drivers that have been mounting recently.

Lumina Foundation reports over 31 million adults aged 25-54 have at least some college but no college degree or certificate.1 Clearly, adult learners need greater degree or certificate programs with flexible class schedules and affordable tuition models. But employers and educators continue to express frustration over a perceived gap between the students produced by higher education and the needs of the workplace, despite years of well-meaning efforts to bridge the two. More importantly, the two components of the affordability equation are the costs of obtaining a degree or certificate and employment and advancement prospects upon completion.

While there are some encouraging models that have achieved positive results in better connecting education to employment2, CBE provides another opportunity to gain traction with employability while reaching out to populations of learners otherwise disenfranchised by traditional education. But it can be easy to view the employability component in one dimension. To power high employability in a CBE program, design requires a comprehensive strategy connecting employers to the program—at the design and development phase—across several critical points in the student journey.

Based on the experience with a range of early adopters who have created strong ties to employers and employment in CBE programs, we can identify five key touch points for driving employability in CBE program design:program strategy, marketing and recruiting, curriculum and assessment development, student professional growth, and program completion.

Comprehensive CBE Employment Strategy


1.  Program Strategy

Employability strategy begins with program selection driven by demonstrated market need and close partnership with employers. In starting up its CBE program, Eastern Gateway Community College (EGCC) in Ohio looked to some key service unions in the state to define high areas of need for both new and existing jobs. The unions worked closely with EGCC on market assessment data and partnered with the college on marketing and recruiting. The result: The program has generated more than 500 enrollments in its first six months and is providing new career opportunities for adults in the region.

2.  Marketing and Recruiting

Southern New Hampshire’s College for America has an exceptionally robust approach for partnering with employers on their marketing and recruiting strategy. All of the students in the program enter from one of CfA’s employer partners, including recently added Anthem Blue Cross. CfA’s tuition model provides a level of affordability that partners like Anthem view as a great investment. Consequently, Anthem provides nearly 100% coverage for an associate’s degree through tuition reimbursement. Current students in the program are the best recruiters, spreading word of both the tuition benefit and the degree program.

3. Curriculum and Assessment Development

Edmonds Community College PACE-IT program ties its certifications to national testing standards. But in developing the CBE curriculum, Edmonds used the DACUM (Developing A Curriculum)3 occupational analysis process that involves industry experts and actual skilled employees in the field to work with faculty to storyboard and outline key abilities, tasks, and competencies. DACUM is designed to involve not just employers, but individuals actually working in the career field to help define competencies aligned with real world skills and abilities used on the job.

4. Student Professional Growth

Many employers indicate that the key skills they most need college graduates to possess are so-called soft skills—ability to communicate, problem-solve, think creatively, act with initiative, and more.4 For its CBE program, Lipscomb University partnered with Organizational System International (OSI) to use its Polaris model to assess student competencies in seven domains: interpersonal, communication, management, leadership, con­ceptual, personal, and contextual. Polaris was developed based on extensive research across a number of job categories.5 Lipscomb worked with local employers to refine the competencies in these domains to a final list of 17 used in a comprehensive, real-world assessment measuring cross-cutting skills that lead to professional development in most fields. The program has been so successful that many local employers are sending their employees to Lipscomb for this assessment and subsequent professional development.

5. Post-Graduation Placement

Networking and professional engagement with potential employers and the industry while completing a degree are also essential connection points in the employability strategy chain. Sinclair Community College and Austin Community College are part of a CBE consortium adapting the Western Governor’s model in four IT related areas.6  They both use job fairs as one key way to engage students in the program with potential employers. Sinclair adds an innovative twist and holds a reverse job fair, where students pitch themselves and employers roam about engaging students. Austin Community College also includes an automated portfolio and a process to better position students to present themselves to employers upon completion.7

These are just a few, well-known examples. But however compelling, they only tell part of the story. The biggest difference won’t come from just building employability into your program at one or two of the key connection points. The most successful programs take the best ideas already in play and craft a comprehensive strategy involving employers from the beginning, throughout the development process, and across the entire student journey. Most importantly, employability success requires involving employers deeply at all of these points as true partners in the endeavor to provide the flexibility and career connection that lies at the heart of CBE’s promise.

We invite you to explore the broader topic of CBE by visiting us online, downloading our CBE Playbook, and joining the conversation.


This content was originally published on Education Dive May 17, 2016.



About the Author

Paul Bowers is a strategic consultant for Learning Strategies with Pearson Higher Education and has worked at the forefront of educational technology and distance learning for 32 years. Paul has served on the Board of the Instructional Management System (IMS, now IMS-Global), the Board of Advisors for the Monterey Institute NROC open courseware project, and on the Iowa Educational Telecommunications Committee. His approach to online education is informed by seminal philosophies and strategies for engaging students in rich and meaningful learning communities that produce deep learning outcomes. Paul has served in a variety of roles at public and private higher education institutions, including 22 years as a faculty member as well as serving as Director, Dean, and Vice President for online and adult learning at several institutions, including Buena Vista University, Cleveland State University, and Hiram College. Paul also has worked extensively with community colleges and universities as a consultant for educational technology in private practice.



1  Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Yuan, X., Harrell, A., Wild, J., Ziskin, M. Some College, No Degree: A National View of Students with Some College Enrollment, but No Completion (Signature Report No. 7). Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2014, July.

2 Peter Stokes, Higher Education and Employability: New Models for Integrating Study and Work, Harvard Education Press, August 2015. http://hepg.org/hep-home/books/higher-education-and-employability

3 Jean Hernandez, President, Edmonds Community College, CBE PACE-IT http://cbeinfo.org/blog/cbe-pace-it

4 Chip Franklin and Robert Lytle, Employer Perspectives on Competency Based Education, American Enterprise Institute, April 2015. https://www.aei.org/publication/employer-perspectives-on-competency-based-education/

5 Rebecca Klein-Collins and Rick Olsen, Customized, Outcome-based, Relevant Evaluation (CORE) at Lipscomb University : a competency-based education case study, Council on Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), 2014. www.cael.org/cbe-publications

6 Ann E. Person, Lisbeth Goble, Julie Bruch Jessie Mazeika, Implementation of Competency-Based Education in Community Colleges: Findings from the Evaluation of a TAACCCT Grant, Mathematica Policy Research, November 2015.https://www.mathematica-mpr.com/our-publications-and-findings/publications/implementation-of-competencybased-education-in-community-colleges-findings-from-the-evaluation

7 Thad Nodine and Sally Johnstone, Competency-Based Education Giving Colleges Accelerated, Flexible Options, Distance Education, June 6, 2015 http://ccweek.com/article-4581-competency-based-education-giving-colleges-accelerated,-flexible-options.html