The American public’s interests are well-served by a strong, effective postsecondary education system. And yet the industry’s predominant learning and service paradigm, one that credentials learning by measuring student’s time on task and that treats all learners largely the same from a pacing and a requirements perspective is inconsistent with the realities, circumstances, and expectations of 21st century students. Competency-based education, with its emphasis on the attainment of mastery through the measurement of learning, not time, and its focus on operational efficiency and effectiveness, has the potential to evolve and shape the postsecondary education industry by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo. The purpose of this qualitative, exploratory study was to understand and describe the competency-based education practices of American higher education institutions within the context of Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. The practices and programs of eight institutions that offer accredited, competency-based certificate and degree programs were examined. An exploratory, qualitative review of publically available artifacts that describe the competency-based approaches employed by these eight institutions provided the primary data for this study. Prominent industry reports on competency-based education published from September 2014 through January 2016 were examined and are described. The researcher’s professional responsibilities and observations while engaged in the design and delivery of competency-based programming also informed this study. Specific characteristics, practices, and two distinct methods for the delivery of competency-based education were identified and are described. Consistent mission, tuition, and student demographic realities were found to exist among the examined institutions and are discussed. Variable findings related to program design practices, the nature of assessment, the role of faculty, and provider-specific outcomes emerged and are also presented. The current state of the practice was found to be consistent with Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. The practice was further found to be workforce aligned but only minimally deployed within the postsecondary education industry. Characteristics of examined programs were found to be non-distinct. Program evaluation criteria and outcomes were determined to be unclear at this time.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Dissertations (EdD) -- Organizational leadership; Competency-based education -- Evaluation; Disruptive technologies; Education, Higher -- Evaluation -- Comparative studies

Date of Award


School Affiliation

Graduate School of Education and Psychology



Degree Type


Degree Name


Faculty Advisor

Davis, Kay D.;