Learning Matters: Enrollment Motivators for Competency-Based Education

Cali Morrison. Photo: Hunter D'Antuono.

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Since 2009, higher education institutions have been opening new pathways to degree completion in answer to a national goal voiced by President Barack Obama: “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of graduates in the world” (Obama,2009). One of the more popular pathways being introduced to higher education is competency-based education – both direct assessment programs as well as those mapped to the course and credit hour.

By some accounts, more than 500 institutions are investigating offering this modality of higher education (Fain, 2016; Fain, 2015ab; Fleming, 2015; Kelchen, 2016; Mitchell, 2015; Nodine, 2016; Public Agenda, 2015).

For all this program building, many in higher education are still asking the question, what brought these students into this type of learning? What motivated them to enroll in a competency- based education program? Proxies can be made to the adult learner population, but research on what motivates them to pursue postsecondary education is scant, and what there is tends to focus on community college learners. (Broekemier, 2002; Laanan, 2003; Morrison, 2016; Peek & Goldstein, 1991; Somers,, 2006; Southerland, 2006) With the support of the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements (DETA) at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, I recently looked to answer just that question.

During the summer and fall of 2016, I distributed a survey, built from the UW-M DETA Research Toolkit, to 5,142 undergraduate enrollees at four institutions offering competency-based education which was faculty-developed, mastery- based and self-paced.

From this collection, there were 381 usable responses. The results of the analysis are somewhat counter to popular belief, as well as previous research (Morrison, 2016) about CBE enrollees impetus for enrolling. This analysis showed that learning goals were the highest ranked enrollment motivator, followed closely by academic goals. The primary difference between these two motivators is that learning goals focused on becoming a more knowledgeable person, whereas academic goals centered on degree attainment and continuing beyond the current degree program. Learners in this study ranked modality of learning, social goals, and professional goals with lower importance to their decision to enroll.

Additional analysis showed moderate correlations between learning and academic goals; learning goals and social goals; and academic goals and social goals. Learning goals and professional goals were a low correlation while all other learner motivation categories revealed either weak correlations or were statistically insignificant.

Illustration: chart of learning, academic, professional and social goals.

So, why does this matter? If you’ve seen a commercial on television or YouTube for any competency-based education program, you’ve probably heard phrases like, ‘level up’ or ‘advance your career.’

Many CBE programs are marketed at the working learner looking to gain an edge in their career advancement opportunities. This research shows it’s important to not lose sight of promoting the academic quality, the rigor, involved in pursuing a degree in a competency-based education modality.

While competency-based education has been around since the 1970s, for this generation of learners, it’s a new concept. To attract the adult learners who would most benefit from the modality will first mean helping them understand what CBE is and conversely, what it isn’t. Competency-based education, in any of its flavors, is not an easy out, it’s not necessarily faster and it’s not only about vocational preparation. Working together, the higher education community can promote this learning pathway to help the nation reach our lofty higher education goals.  


Broekemier, G.M. (2002) A Comparison of Two-Year and Four-Year Adult Students: Motivations to Attend College and the Importance of Choice Criteria. Journal of Marketing in Higher Education, 12 (1), 31-48. DOI: 10.1300/J05v12n0103.

Fain, P. (2015a, January 13). Experimenting with Competency. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from:

Fain, P. (2015b, April 15). Education Dept. Approves Two More Direct Assessment Programs. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from:

Fain, P. (2016, March 30) Competency for the Traditional Student. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from:

B Fleming. (2015, February 17) Mapping the Competency-based Education Universe. Wake Up Call. Retrieved from:

Kelchen, R. (2016) Who enrolls in competency-based education? An examination of the demographics and _nances of competency-based education programs. The Journal of Competency-based Education, 1: 48-59. doi: 10.1002/cbe2.1005

Laanan, F. S. (2003) Older Adults in Community Colleges: Choices, Attitudes, and Goals. Educational Gerontology, 29, 757-776, doi: 10.1080/03601270390231184

Morrison, C.M.K. (2016) Finding the Right Fit: the search and selection process for direct assessment program enrollees. The Journal of Competency-based Education. DOI: 10.1002/cbe2.1013

Nodine, T.R. (2016) How did we get here? A brief history of competency-based higher education in the United States. The Journal of Competency-based Education, 1, 5-11. DOI: 10.1002/cbe2.1004

Obama, B. H. (2009, February 24). Remarks of President Barack Obama – As Prepared for Delivery Address to Joint Session of Congress. Retrieved from:

Peek, R.P. and Goldstein, A.S. (1991, October-November) Using Time-line Methodology for Finding Adult student College Selection Information Behaviors: An exploratory study of the methodology. Paper presented at the Association for the Study of Higher Education Conference, Boston, MA.

Public Agenda. (2015, December) The Competency-based Education Ecosystem Framework. Retrieved from:

Somers, P., Haines, K., Keene, B., Bauer, J., Pfei_er, M., McCluskey, J., Settle, J., and Sparks, B. (2006). Towards a Theory of Choice for Community College Students. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 30(1), 53-67, DOI: 10.1080/1066892050024886.


*Photos by AFP Hunter D’Antuono

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