Josie Douyon’s college career started like many students – graduating from high school and starting at a large public university. But when she became a mom soon after enrolling, her path became one that represents far more learners — a learner who stopped out of college when the traditional class schedule lacked flexibility to allow her to work, care for her son, and go to school. Students like Josie demonstrate how traditional higher education options fall short of serving many of today’s learners.
In a new brief, Postsecondary CBE: A Primer for Policymakers, the Center for Higher Education Policy and Practice (CHEPP) and the American Institutes for Research (AIR) outline what CBE is, how it works, the potential benefits to learners, and how institutional practice is driven by federal higher education policy. The goal of this primer is to provide policymakers with valuable information about CBE as they consider how institutions of higher education can meet the needs of more learners across the country – including learners like Josie and millions of others who have stopped out without a degree.
Higher education is at an(other) inflection point. The traditional college-age population is shrinking: fewer high school graduates pursue higher education each year, resulting in declining student enrollment at colleges across the country. At the same time, there are now more than 40 million Americans who have stopped out of college with some credit and no credential or degree. 
By opting out or stopping out and making different choices, learners are signaling that the traditional model is not working for them. They are also saying that more directly in surveys: as one example, Strada conducted a survey of adults ages 18 to 65 with an associate degree or less in 2022, asking what changes to higher education would make people more likely to enroll: 56 percent said flexible scheduling, 54 percent said credit for prior learning, and 40 percent said confidence in career advancement. Additionally, while colleges largely weathered enrollment declines before COVID-19, higher education enrollment is now 5.8 percent lower than in fall 2019 nationally, putting the future of some institutions in jeopardy, and encouraging them to think about new options.
Feeling that pressure of enrollment declines and increasing student options, efforts to redesign options for learners are underway at some institutions. One exception to these declines is at predominantly online institutions where enrollment has been climbing since before the pandemic, including for learners who are 18-22. This growth also is due to the enrollment of students who had previously tried college but stopped out with no degree. These students represent an estimated 42 percent of online learners, according to a recent Wiley survey.
Offering online courses is enough flexibility for some learners, but other efforts go beyond online modality and change the fundamental model. Learning models, such as CBE, provide the potential for a greater range of flexible options. It was when Josie found a hybrid, competency-based education (CBE) program that gave her the support and flexibility she needed, that she earned her bachelor’s degree and found a job that provides a better quality of life for her and her family. In addition to offering new learning modalities to effectively re-enroll students who have stopped out, learners benefit from robust credit transfer options and systems to give credit for prior learning.
CBE programs provide learners greater flexibility, while also anchoring on competencies that are crucial for success in work and life. CBE replaces seat time, credit hours, and grades as the measures of student progress and completion with measurement of their demonstrated knowledge and skills. CBE programs typically allow learners to advance once they demonstrate competency in a particular area and offer students agency around how fast or slow they move, including the option to move through content they are familiar with faster and focus more time in other areas. Because CBE often requires learners to demonstrate knowledge and skills, learners can use previous work and learning experiences to accelerate their path to a credential or degree.
Policy can reinforce existing practices, and therefore can serve as a barrier for institutions working to offer new, learner-centered models like CBE. While the needs of college students have changed dramatically since Congress passed the Higher Education Act of 1965, the design of higher education programming and policy has remained very similar.
Student federal financial aid under Title IV of the Higher Education Act is awarded based on the credit hour – linking student access to financial aid to seat time, rather than learning – and therefore limiting the flexibility of higher education institutions to operate learner-centered options. Despite the apparent simplicity of focusing on learning rather than time, the de-linking policy from time is complicated – and many policymakers may not be familiar with what CBE is, what differentiates it from traditional higher education, or what kinds of laws and regulations uphold the time-based system.
Declining enrollments and 40 million learners with some college and no degree elevate that learners need more and better options. Policymakers have an opportunity to support the development and responsible scale of models that better center learners in their design, like CBE, by addressing policy barriers and identifying options for ensuring quality of these programs.
 National Student Clearinghouse (https://nscresearchcenter.org/some-college-no-credential/)
 Strada, Education Expectations (https://stradaeducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/061522-pv-charts.pdf)
 National Student Clearinghouse (https://nscresearchcenter.org/current-term-enrollment-estimates/)
 Wiley, Online Learning Provides College Access (https://newsroom.wiley.com/press-releases/press-release-details/2023/Online-Learning-Provides-College-Access-to-Students-Whove-Been-Left-Behind-According-to-New-Wiley-Survey/default.aspx)