The Best of Both Worlds: Supporting Adult Learners through CBE and CPL

Read more about this approach in the new CAEL and C-BEN brief.

A casual observer would be forgiven for thinking that people can get the jobs they want in a time of “the great resignation” and historically low unemployment rates. Yet for many people their career of choice is out of reach because they lack the skills and supporting credentials sought by employers. This situation is especially true for existing workers who are seeking ways to upskill, while continuing to manage their current job and take care of their families. A disproportionate number of low-income, adults of color are impacted by this reality.

Traditional higher education models, with their emphasis on time-bound learning and course-based instruction, fail to serve today’s students. However, there are proven models that provide all learners the opportunity to earn a credential in a way that is more flexible, relevant, and valuable, and can help them navigate a life of learning and work.

CAEL and C-BEN are partners in supporting the growth of these more agile and learner-centric models through competency-based education (CBE) and credit for prior learning (CPL).

C-BEN and CAEL have a shared vision that higher education should be more focused on recognizing and valuing learning itself — regardless of where that learning takes place or how it is acquired. CBE and CPL complement each other but are distinct. CBE focuses on student learning and the application of that learning — what they know and can do. A key component of CBE is understanding what the learner already knows in order to provide the most valuable skills and create a personal path to the credential. CPL — or prior learning assessment (PLA), as it’s alternately called — provides trusted methodologies to translate the knowledge and skills that a student has developed outside of college classrooms into competencies or traditional credit hours. The combination of recognizing what someone already knows and can do, along with a more flexible and personalized learning journey allows learners to gain value immediately and progress quickly towards a credential. The combination can increase both completion and employability rates- both critical to individual mobility and the health of our economy.

Now more than ever, we have the opportunity with CBE and CPL to help working adults access higher education in ways that reduce time to graduation, cut cost of attendance and acquire the competencies — knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors — that the labor market demands.To learn more about how CBE and CPL are working together to improve career advancement and economic mobility for adult learners, download our new short-content brief: Partners in a New Learning Model: Competency-Based Education and Credit for Prior Learning.

About the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN)

The Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) is revolutionizing how we design, experience, and measure learning throughout a lifetime. We believe learning should be measured by what you can do — the knowledge, skills, and behaviors that lay the foundation for your success — and for more than 10 years we have been guiding our expansive network of education leaders, employers, policymakers, and changemakers towards quality competency-based models and practices. C-BEN is a U.S.-based non-profit organization. For more information, visit

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