How Competency-Based Education Can Address the Experience Conundrum

Two women at a table.


The experience conundrum is an issue many recent graduates face while job hunting and one employers should be aware of when hiring. It goes like this: to get a job, candidates need work experience, but to get experience, they need a job. This can be especially frustrating when “entry-level” positions candidates would otherwise qualify for a job if experience was not required. The other side of this equation is that employers may overlook or dismiss capable candidates despite translatable or latent skills. The Achievement & Assessment Institute’s Center for Certification & Competency-Based Education (C3Be) is aiming to address this problem by helping organizations understand and evaluate candidate’s skills by looking at competencies. 

Founded in 2021, C3Be’s main goal is to improve learning by better communicating the learning outcomes mastered by learners and the competencies needed by employers. Simply put, C3Be makes learning visible. Diane DeBacker, director of C3Be, describes competency-based education as “moving from nouns to verbs.”

There is no universally accepted definition of competency-based education, but common components include: curricula designed around specific competencies, advancement focused on a demonstration of competency, and flexibility that allows students to follow varied timelines and processes in demonstrating competency.

An example of how competencies can be broken down is C3Be’s work with Alex Bardas, assistant professor in KU’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department. Bardas tapped C3Be to create a teaching map for his cyber defense course, EECS 465. The course syllabus originally listed four goals for the class. But when C3Be researchers analyzed all the lectures, tests, and coursework, they found that those four goals resulted in over 140 knowledge points, skills, and abilities that don’t show up on a transcript, much less a resume.

“While I was looking at a lot of aspects related to EECS 465 from a purely technical perspective, they [C3Be] were always able to bring in a social science lens that would put things in a new and meaningful context,” Bardas said. “It provided me with a lot of different data and analysis points that I was previously not considering.”

Two hands shaking.


This is why expecting a transcript or resume to fully communicate experience can be limiting to both parties in the hiring process. What employers are really looking for is someone that meets the job description and can complete the tasks. Job experience is one way to determine that, but it’s not always an accurate or fair representation of how well someone will perform job duties. Too many of the knowledge, skills, and abilities of applicants remain invisible.

“Jobs as a single source of experience should not be the only  thing employers look at, especially for entry level positions,” DeBacker said. “People’s lived experiences, such as military service, work experience in a different field, and even volunteer service provide excellent examples of looking at what individuals can do rather than simply looking at the title of a job or a degree.”

C3Be helps universities, businesses, and students better meet each other's needs through teaching, curriculum, and learning maps; authentic assessments; development and training to support stakeholders to understand learning and assessment through the lens of an outcome-based approach; and community building with diverse stakeholders to undertake, certify, and disseminate competencies that matter.


If you are an employer or organization looking to learn more about competency-based education, visit the C3BE website or email Diane DeBacker at for more information.