Competency-Based Degree Programs Catch On

In the vast majority of colleges around the world, earning a degree is based on credit hours. Students put in the required amount of education, make the grade and at the end, the degree is theirs. But there has been a growing voice of concern over the way college is structured. What if students already know what they're expected to learn before they even enroll? Why aren't they tested on their competency, rather than forced into a credit hour system?


Competency-based degree programs focus on what students know, as opposed to putting them on a semester clock to earn hours toward a degree. Students in competency-based programs work at their own pace through task-oriented homework and assignments, often online. Typically, they must meet certain benchmarks during regular assessment that determine their grasp of the material. Students continue to work until they reach competency in all areas of the degree program -- and then they're done.

Schools embrace competency-based programs

Competency-based degrees have actually been around for a while. Western Governors University, founded in the 1990s, is dedicated to the competency-based model. Students pay $3,000 per six-month semester, and during that time they can complete as many courses as they like -- including testing out of material they already know. As a result, the average student at Western Governors University earns a bachelor's degree in two and a half years, with a price tag of about $15,000, according to LinkedIn. That's a significant decrease in the time and money usually spent on earning a four-year degree.

Now, the competency-based model is gaining support from a wide range of institutions. College for America, an online college launched by Southern New Hampshire University in January 2013, already has its first graduate. Zach Sherman, a 21-year old sanitation worker from Ohio, earned his associate degree in just under 100 days, reports Inside Higher Ed. The flexibility of online courses allowed Sherman to earn his degree while continuing to work his usual 56 hours each week on the graveyard shift.

Other colleges are following suit. Northern Arizona University is now accepting students for competency-based degrees in computer information technology, liberal arts and small business administration, according to NAU News. Every six months of unlimited credits and self-paced learning is a flat fee of $2,500. Students can save money by testing out of modules that they're already familiar with, thus moving forward quickly into the courses that will teach them something new.

The University of Wisconsin jumped into the game by announcing several flexible learning options through UW-Milwaukee, set to begin January 2014. These include two nursing degrees, a bachelor's completion program in diagnostic imaging, a bachelor's degree in information science and technology, and a certificate in professional and technical communication, reports UW System News.

According to the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, the UW system is so sure the competency-based program will be a success that its developing five new online certificate programs. Called the Flexible Option degree program, students can earn certificates in project management, global skills, geographic information systems, alcohol and drug abuse counseling, and sales.

Competency-based degrees get a legislative boost

As tuition rates soar across the nation, legislators are stepping up with competency-based solutions. Democratic senators Christopher Murphy of Connecticut and Brian Schatz of Hawaii intend to introduce legislation that creates a pilot program for competency-based learning. "The federal government should be a bigger partner in helping to develop these new innovative ecosystems around shorter-timeframe degree programs," Murphy said. The changes would be aimed at offering more accelerated degrees, dual-enrollment programs and competency-based degrees.

The movement is catching on, with representatives from both sides of the aisle joining forces to introduce the Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project of 2013, according to The Hill. Sponsored by Representatives Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), the act promises to help colleges explore education and deliver financial aid based on competency, rather than semester timing.

These efforts signal big changes ahead for colleges that are holding onto the traditional higher education model. "We think it's time for federal higher education policy to force college presidents to wake up every day thinking about how they can keep tuition down," Murphy said.

"Big Idea 2014: Base Degrees on What We Know, Not How Long We Spend in a Classroom," LinkedIn, December 10, 2013, Jeff Selingo, http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20131210000347-17000124-big-idea-2014-base-degrees-on-what-we-know-not-how-long-we-spent-in-a-classroom
"Competency Gains More Traction," Inside Higher Ed, November 22, 2013, Michael Stratford, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/11/22/2-democrats-plan-legislation-promote-competency-based-ed-and-rate-colleges
"Experimental College's First Graduate," Inside Higher Ed, August 16, 2013, Paul Fain, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/08/16/new-form-competency-based-learnings-first-batch-graduates
"Give competency-based education a chance," The Hill, September 23, 2013, Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), http://thehill.com/opinion/op-ed/324067-give-competency-based-education-a-chance-
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"UW System unveils first Flexible Option degree programs," UW System News, November 28, 2012, http://www.wisconsin.edu/news/2012/r121128.htm