Competency-Based Degree Programs 101: Learn What They Are and How They Work
Got several years of work and life experience under your belt, but no college degree? You now can receive college credit for the on-the-job and lifelong learning you’ve done and the “competencies” you’ve mastered. It’s part of a new push by universities to offer flexible degree programs targeted at adult learners.
What they are
Competency-based programs focus less on seat time in class, and more on overall learning. These programs often are referred to as “personalized learning” programs. Typically, a student in a competency-based program can work at her own pace to complete the program.
The programs are based around core “competencies” a student needs to master, rather than a set of specific courses the student needs to take. So instead of taking a traditional course, these programs have an independent study-style of learning. At the end of each “term” students take an assessment (such as completing an exam, project or paper) and that assessment determines if they earn credit towards completing their degree.
How to find them
Competency-based programs have been exploding in popularity at universities nationwide since the U.S. Department of Education began accrediting these programs in 2013. The Lumina Foundation created the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) in 2014 for universities that “offer degree programs with well-defined learning outcomes and rigorous assessment.” See a list of schools participating in the C-BEN.
Additionally, you can Google “competency-based degree programs” and many universities with programs will appear, such as the University of Wisconsin Flexible Option, Western Governors University and Brandman University (CA).
How much they cost
Many competency-based programs charge a set fee per term, rather than by credit hour. Usually, you can complete as many competencies as you are able to in that term.
However, not all competency-based degree programs are financial-aid eligible—meaning you can’t put federal financial aid towards the costs to complete some programs. In fact, as of January 2015, only four schools that offer “direct assessment degrees” had programs that were federal financial-aid eligible, and only a few dozen other programs had received approval to apply federal financial aid.
Before choosing a program, check with an admission counselor to confirm whether the program is approved by the federal government to use financial aid.