Higher Learning Commission


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Background Information on Competency-Based Education Programs

Institutions planning to offer competency-based education (CBE) programs are required to seek prior HLC approval by completing and submitting an application. Institutions should understand the Common Framework for Defining and Approving Competency-Based Education Programs that was adopted by the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) on June 2, 2015.

Institutions planning to offer CBE programs that are considered for Title IV eligibility should also be aware that the U.S. Department of Education requires that they obtain approval from their regional accrediting body prior to filing their applications with the Department.

Institutions are encouraged to understand the Department’s expectations for accreditors as outlined in its guidelines published on March 19, 2013, and on December 19, 2014, which highlight that a course/credit-based competency-based program that requires approval by the accreditor is one where the program is organized or re-organized around competencies, not one where competencies have been added to existing courses.

HLC’s Process

Competency-based education has two principal approaches: (1) a credit-based approach and (2) a direct assessment approach.

HLC’s policies and procedures for substantive change apply for these requests. Please refer to the Overview of HLC Policies and Procedures for Institutional Changes Requiring Notification or Approval. In addition, HLC’s Competency-Based Education Programs Substantive Change process must follow the following federal guidelines:

Direct Assessment Programs. An institution must seek prior HLC approval for every direct assessment program and hybrid program, as well as every concentration (or any subset) of each direct assessment program that it intends to initiate (for example, within MBA, an MBA in Finance, MBA in Accounting, or MBA in International Business, or within engineering, in chemical engineering, electrical engineering, or civll engineering, etc.). An institution must file one application for each program. If an institution plans various concentrations of a program, it must separately address each concentration in the application. If an institution later seeks to add a new concentration for a direct assessment program or hybrid program previously approved by HLC, it will need to file a new application and seek approval for that new concentration. 

Note: Hybrid direct assessment programs are only eligible for Title IV federal financial aid if the institution has joined the Experimental Sites Initiative of the U.S. Department of Education that allows institutions to receive exemptions from regulations that would otherwise preclude such programs from eligibility.

Credit-Based CBE Programs. An institution must seek prior approval for its first two credit-based CBE programs. A credit-based CBE program requiring approval is one in which (1) the majority (51% or more) of the credits are offered through CBE or (2) the general education courses or the major courses are being converted to CBE and the program is organized around competencies.

Once HLC has approved the first two programs, an institution can add concentrations to the approved CBE programs, reformat other existing academic programs into CBE programs or add new academic programs in a credit-based CBE format provided that the institution does not add a program that would be a “significant departure” from its existing programs or would trigger the need for prior approval under HLC policies related to new academic programs.

Credit-based CBE programs that were offered prior to May 1, 2015, and reported to HLC through the survey sent in the spring of 2016 are included in the institution’s approvals. These programs are listed in an institution’s Institutional Status and Requirements (ISR) Report under Accreditation Stipulations.

Note: Since HLC’s process for evaluating CBE programs changed in 2015, credit-based CBE programs that were offered prior to May 1, 2015, and are included in the institution’s approvals do not count toward the first two programs approvals.

Other Related Considerations and Essential Program Components

Institutions should understand the difference between credit-based CBE and other initiatives, such as prior learning assessments, for example. 

Proposed CBE programs are subject to federal definitions related to distance and correspondence education, and institutions should understand the significance of the interaction between students and faculty in these programs. If HLC finds that the proposed programs lack sufficient student-faculty engagement as outlined in the federal definitions of these concepts, HLC will require that the institution have appropriate HLC approvals for correspondence education prior to initiation of the proposed credit-based or direct assessment CBE programs in addition to the HLC approval required for credit-based or direct assessment CBE programs.

Institutions should also have carefully reviewed their credit hour policies and practices and made appropriate changes to encompass these new programs. Where the institution proposes reducing or eliminating “seat time” and credit-based units of measurement commonly used to enroll students and measure their progress, it must have determined “credit-hour equivalencies” for the program based upon its conventional assignment of credit hours across the institution.

Consequently, institutions should be prepared to demonstrate that their CBE programs (regardless of the chief mode of delivery, whether credit-based, direct assessment or a combination of the two) include the following essential components, as documented in the design of the program and its regular evaluation:

  1. Faculty interaction with students is initiated on a regular basis by one or more faculty members who have subject matter expertise in the discipline of the course or program (and not performed by success coaches, academic mentors, graduate students or other individuals even if they have some subject-matter expertise).

  2. Regular and substantive faculty interaction is explicitly designed in the curriculum and can be documented, and the quality of this interaction is evaluated in curriculum assessment and program review.

  3. Assessment of “credit hour equivalencies” for the competencies and student learning outcomes of the program in relation to the typical assignment of credit hours across the institution. (In order to corroborate this matter, all institutions that have not previously undergone a credit-hour evaluation in conjunction with a comprehensive evaluation will complete the Federal Credit Hour Worksheet and submit this form as part of the application. [If there are questions about whether an institution has previously completed a credit-hour review, contact the institution’s HLC staff liaison.])

  4. The elements of best practice identified in the competency-based education application. These elements are derived from HLC’s Criteria for Accreditation and Assumed Practices and align with elements that it typically reviews in substantive change.

Related Policy


Institutional Change Policy


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