CHAPEL HILL – As the UNC system reexamines its strategic goals for the next five years, university officials have turned to employers and business leaders to identify key needs—and the result of that will be a new focus on a novel academic approach called “competency-based learning.”

That’s according to UNC president Tom Ross, who says today’s business leaders want people who can think and communicate effectively for themselves.

“When we talk to people–business leaders and other employers of all types–they tell us what they need more than anything else who can think critically, who can write and communicate orally, who can understand how to use data, how to look at a variety of different disciplinary concerns to solve problems, (and) how to work in teams,” Ross says. “Those are the core ‘competencies’ that employers need.”

More information on “competency-based education” available herehereherehere, andhere. (Online universities have been a driving force in the CBE movement so far–most notably Western Governors University, based in Utah.)

The competency-based learning approach focuses on developing broader, widely-applicable skills—like writing and critical thinking—rather than particular bits of information or specific knowledge about specific jobs. In essence it suggests a return to the liberal arts and a recommitment to developing well-rounded graduates with a strong intellectual core—a task that UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp says has been a strength of the UNC system from the beginning.


And while employers say they need competent workers for jobs right now, Thorp says the real strength of “competency-based learning” is in how it trains students to adapt to the as-yet-unknown jobs of the future.

“If a student is a junior in high school now…by the time they get out (of college) it’s five, six years from now–and the rate of change in the economy right now, with technology and migration, is so fast,” he says. “We need to give students the ability to teach themselves the jobs of the future, because we can’t prepare them for jobs that don’t exist yet.”

Right now, the competency-based approach is still in development. Ross says turning to it now will not only benefit today’s students—it’ll also put UNC on the cutting edge of an educational trend that’s only going to become more mainstream in the coming years.

“Really nobody’s doing competency-based education,” he says. “The assessment tools available to look at it are still in development and relatively new. So it’s new territory–but (it’s) ground we need to plow, if we’re going to be a successful university in the future.”

The focus on “competency-based learning” is part of the UNC system’s new five-year strategic plan, which the UNC Board of Governors is currently examining. The Board saw a draft of the plan at their meeting earlier this month; it’s expected to approve the final version in February.