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Skills-based hiring is gaining momentum. More and more major companies, states and even the federal government are re-examining stringent degree requirements as a proxy for job readiness in favor of a skills-forward approach. This rise in skills-based hiring may be, in part, a response to ongoing talent shortages—as of the end of November, there were currently 8.8 million job openings in the United States.

Research shows that skills-based hiring is now helping employers find the best workers and retain them. A study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 78 percent of human resource professionals say the quality of their organization’s hires has improved due to their use of skills assessments. This does not make the college degree obsolete, however. In fact, higher education may have an important role to play in facilitating this transformation.

It’s one thing for employers to say they are open to prioritizing skills and competencies and another thing to actually make the shift. Despite growing interest in skills-based hiring—and its potential to advance social and economic mobility—there is a gap in employers’ ability to determine job readiness. Colleges and universities can help bridge that gap by embracing a system of learning that may also hold the key to ensuring higher education’s lasting relevance: competency-based education (CBE).

There are now about 600 institutions offering more than 1,000 CBE-based programs in the U.S. The growth of these programs has been rapid; between 2012 and 2015, the number of CBE programs grew from 20 to more than 500. A 2020 survey from the American Institutes for Research and the Competency-Based Education Network found that more than 80 percent of institutions surveyed believe CBE programs will grow over the next five years.

Institutions are finding that competency-based education programs are helping them better serve the varied and diverse needs of today’s learners. The programs allow for more flexible credentials, permitting students to move through their education at a pace best suited for them. CBE programs also have the benefit of communicating just what skills and competencies students are learning and graduating with.

By measuring learner competency instead of simply clocking seat time, CBE programs are designed to develop and assess high-demand skills. CBE’s emphasis is on showing what a learner knows and can do, rather than on how or where the learning took place. It’s a model of learning that allows learners to demonstrate knowledge and skills mastery through multiple types of assessment activities. This has grown all the more important as an increasing number of employers have begun to question what, exactly, a college degree can tell them about their prospective employees. CBE integrates competencies and skills directly related to careers into degree programs, improving relevancy for students and employers alike.

Degrees that incorporate a strong CBE foundation allow learners to know with confidence that they have gained the competencies that were clearly defined and outlined within a course or program. This enables students to more easily demonstrate their skills and capabilities to employers, not only upon graduation but while still progressing toward a degree.

Likewise, companies can be confident that graduates of CBE programs actually possess the skills they are looking for when filling open roles. Indeed, CBE may represent the most promising and perhaps most impactful way institutions can help students demonstrate what they know and can do while signaling that mastery to employers and other stakeholders.

As the hiring landscape evolves in the post-pandemic era, employers will need new ways to find and assess qualified candidates. CBE and skills-based hiring are two sides of the same coin. Employers and institutions who learn this lesson quickly will be the best positioned to navigate a new and more equitable system of training, finding and hiring talent.

Jillian Klein is senior vice president of government and external affairs for Strategic Education.

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