TJ interviews: C-BEN’s Charla Long

Charla Long talks to TJ about competency-based education (CBE) and its importance today.

Competency-based education isn’t a term I’ve come across – could you give us a brief explanation?

A competency is the capability to apply or use a set of related knowledge, skills, abilities, and ‘intellectual behaviours’, like communication and problem-solving, to thrive in a defined career setting. 

Most simply defined, CBE is focused on actual student learning and the application of that learning. Learners’ progress is measured by demonstrating – through a system of rigorous assessments – the competence required for a focus area. 

This focus on clear expectations for learning and the required demonstration to prove the learner has met those expectations – rather than on measuring time spent in class – is what sets CBE apart from other forms of post-secondary education.

Employers have grown increasingly frustrated with the quality of talent and with degrees as a proxy for competency. They want greater precision around what graduates actually know and can do

When done with intentionality and rigour, it enables greater flexibility for the learner, can speed time-to-degree, reduce cost and thus risk, and improve connections between learning and work, all without sacrificing quality. 

Why is there still such a disconnect between higher education and workforce requirements of new recruits? And why does it happen in so many different countries? 

Many people, in large part, pursue post-secondary education because they believe it will help them launch, reboot, or advance in their careers. This is especially true in times of economic crisis like now, but even in more stable times, people expect programmes to not only end in a credential but in a good job. And for decades, degrees fairly reliably delivered on that promise.

But today’s employers have grown increasingly frustrated with the quality of talent and with degrees as a proxy for competency. They want greater precision around what graduates actually know and can do.

Even before the pandemic, two-thirds of employers were formally moving away from the degree and toward competency-based hiring or were actively exploring such a change. The economic fallout from COVID-19 will likely hasten this move, as employers increasingly can only afford to hire workers who have the essential skills, knowledge, and abilities for their work.

How is this being addressed in the US, and Kentucky specifically?

My organisation, the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), is addressing this disconnect by elevating the role of CBE. We have dedicated recent years to defining what competency-based education is (and is not), outlining a framework to ensure high-quality programming, and helping institutions implement models tailored to their unique students and workforce needs. 


In Kentucky, specifically, we are partnering with the community and technical college system to align academic, technical, and workforce development offerings to the current and future state, regional, and local workforce needs.

The model, which will span all 16 institutions in the system, aims to provide support and services for each student to help them succeed, while also providing them the flexibility to ensure they can pursue education, complete a programme, and demonstrate the necessary knowledge and skills their first day on the job. 

At the end of the planning project in Kentucky, which will last a year, we plan to issue guidance on the process to help other institutions interested in adopting competency-based approaches.

This year has been disruptive, tragic, and like no other for so many of us. What are you looking forward to in 2021 and what will workplace L&D look like? 

As we make our way through and beyond the COVID-19 crisis, we can’t afford a repeat of the last recession, when many workers went back to school, but many of the programmes they chose didn’t provide a clear return on investment.

This time around, we must ensure the programmes people turn to can actually deliver on outcomes for those individuals and for employers. And we must do so in a way that keeps equity at the forefront.

Among the initiatives I am most excited to launch is The Equity Collaboratory, a partnership with Jobs for the Future, Inc. (JFF) that aims to do just that. 

JFF and C-BEN are now recruiting colleges and universities to join us in developing CBE experiences to better serve learners of colour, leading to improved college and workforce outcomes. Those chosen to participate in the Equity Collaboratory will receive technical assistance and support from C-BEN and JFF to:

  • Create new or modify existing competency-based programmes and solutions that will reduce inequities and lead to jobs in the post-Covid economy
  • Generate strategies to connect programmes and their learners to the labour market
  • Create resources and tools for equitable support services, and
  • Document and create a road map for other institutions in the network and beyond.

We will combine C-BEN’s leadership and deep knowledge in competency-based educational models and expertise implementing and scaling high-quality, non-traditional programmes for all learners with what JFF does best – building educational and economic opportunity for underserved populations and developing innovative programmes and policies that increase college readiness and career success, leading to a more highly skilled and competitive workforce. This will help participants reach their individual goals while helping the field at large.


About the interviewee

Charles Long is C-BEN’s executive director. Learn more here.




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