Competency Based Colleges

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If you are interested in earning a college degree, but want to take an alternative path to that achievement, then considering competency based colleges may be an informed decision.

Competency Based Colleges

Online competency based degree programs differ from traditional college programs in that you earn college credits by demonstrating actual competency of skills in a specific subject area. This is done in place of traditional assignments, homework, and assessments.

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Because everyone’s educational needs and wants are different, it may be beneficial to research competency based universities before applying.

Online Competency Based Degrees

diverse students reading books

Earning your degree online has become more common over the last several years. In fact, roughly 7 million students take at least one of their college courses through distance or remote learning with many more opting for hybrid learning.

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An online competency-based degree program is designed to help working adults and those with family responsibilities balance their busy schedules with the requirements of earning a higher-education degree. It also gives students the highest level of flexibility in completing the program in a much quicker time frame.

Competency based learning is not limited to skill-based degrees like mechanics or technicians but also expands to other sectors. Here are some common degree programs that offer competency based learning:

  • Business
  • Accounting
  • Information Technology (IT)
  • Teaching
  • Project Management
  • Human Resource Management
  • Health Care Management

These are just a few of the degrees available through competency based programs. Some programs even allow you to test your skills in order to pass competencies quicker or gain credit for previous work experience that showcases your skills.

With a CBE program, you can work at your own pace based on your schedule and personal obligations. Most programs allow you to submit your assignments when you’re ready to prove you’ve mastered the material (your competency).

Pros and Cons of Competency Based Education Colleges

 group of students studying in university
There are a number of pros and cons to earning an experience based degree. Many students enjoy the flexibility that earning a competency based degree gives them but dislike the cost.

Here are five pros of earning a competency-based education (CBE):

  • Accelerated Graduation: College credits in CBE programs being tied to mastery of skills means students that demonstrate skills quicker may move at a faster pace through the program. Through hard work and dedication, you may be able to finish your degree in less than half the time of traditional programs.
  • Flexibility: This type of degree is truly designed to be completed at your own pace, and it typically does not involve set log-in times or class attendance requirements.
  • Credit for Life Experience: As the completion of the program is based on competency mastery, your prior education and knowledge can be directly applied by testing out of the course material you already know.
  • Cost: Programs are structured so the cost of the program is tied to the time it takes to complete it. Faster students may see significant savings.
  • Real World Applicability: Because competency based programs are designed with practical applications in mind, the real-world applicability of a degree may be high.

These are only some of the pros of competency based programs. The advantages of these programs may vary from university to university.

Here are five cons of competency based education colleges:

  • Cost: Though it could be an advantage, as stated above, students who do meet the required competencies and progress at a fast pace may see significant costs. Keep in mind, financial aid may not be available for competency based programs.
  • Transfer Credits: Some programs may not accept transfer credits and may have their own requirements for earning these credits.
  • Format: The degree of flexibility granted by competency based courses may not be suitable for some students who require more rigid and structured learning environments.
  • Social Learning: This type of education does not take into account the social learning granted by being in a classroom environment of your peers.
  • Employer Focus: Competency based education may be based on what the immediate needs of employers are without giving an eye toward longer-term learning.

It is important to review all the strengths and weaknesses of competency based education before starting one of these programs.

How to Choose a Competency Based Online Degree Program

smart student working hard on research study project

When choosing the right competency-based degree program for you, consider the following.

  • Accreditation: Check to see if the program is accredited by a recognized accrediting agency. This helps to ensure that the program is held to high standards and that your degree is valid if you transfer to another school.
  • Cost: While the tuition cost of earning a degree through an online competency-based program is typically substantially less than traditional education, it can still be helpful to calculate the costs of your local college to see which program is a better fit for your financial needs.
  • Flexibility: While most competency-based degree programs offer a lot of flexibility, it’s helpful to know the exact parameters of each program.
  • Transfer Credits: Check the program’s policy for transferring prior credits. This can be instrumental in saving you time and money in the long run.
  • Credit Opportunities: Some programs offer credit for any previous training and work experience. If the program you’re interested in does not offer credit, check to see if the program allows you to test for some credit if you already have prior skills.

While these are some of the things to consider when looking into competency based programs, it can also be helpful to check in with your academic advisor to determine the options you have, too.

How to Know if a Competency Based Online Degree is Right for Me

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Accredited universities throughout the country are now offering a variety of educational options to meet the changing needs of their student body, and competency-based degree programs are a growing trend in higher education.

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While these programs are designed to be an even more flexible option than online degrees, it is a good idea to determine if you think a competency-based program is right for you.

If you have the following characteristics, a competency based program may be a good choice:

  • Highly-motivated and self-driven
  • Extensive professional experience within their field
  • Independent learners
  • Ability to work at a fast pace

If you are motivated to work independently and have prior learning experience within your field of study, this type of degree could be an excellent way to save money on tuition costs and enter the workforce in a much quicker timeframe than traditional college students.

Admissions Requirements

Each competency based university sets its own requirements for admission. Generally, though, each university’s requirements typically have some similarities with one another.

These are some general requirements competency based universities may have for admissions:

  • Online Application: Most competency based colleges and universities require that you complete an online application.
  • Official Transcripts: You may be required to submit your official transcripts from high school or from prior college experiences.
  • GPA Requirement: Some colleges may require that you earned a certain GPA in your prior education.

Ensuring that all your application materials are completed and sent to each university is important to help your chances of admission.


Accreditation is a process by which a regional accreditation agency reviews a university’s education practices to see if they are providing students with a high-quality education.

Accreditation helps you by ensuring that the education you are receiving at your university is rigorous. Earning a degree from a non-accredited university may severely affect your chances of employment after graduation or future acceptance to graduate programs.

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To ensure the competency based universities you are applying to are regionally accredited, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s website.

Financial Aid and Scholarships

Though it is possible that attending a competency based university may help you save significantly for college, you may still have to pay quite a bit.

It is important to keep in mind that these programs are not always eligible for financial aid merely due to the scheduling and how they are structured. Luckily, there are many resources and organizations in the country looking to help prospective students with the cost of higher education.

One of the biggest sources of aid is federal student aid, in the form of loans and grants. Visit the Federal Student Aid website and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see what you may be eligible for. States may have their own student aid programs and websites for you to look up and apply for. In addition, private and governmental organizations may offer scholarships to help pay for your education.

Employers may also offer programs to help their employees earn a degree to better the quality of their workforce.

What is Competency Based Education?

Competency based education is an educational method that differs from traditional education in many key ways.

Where traditional education assesses competence through assessments like homework, quizzes, tests, and essays, competency based education takes a different approach. Competency based education sets various goals for students to achieve and demonstrate certain skills. If students demonstrate these skills, they move on to more advanced concepts.

By hinging progression on the demonstration of skills rather than coursework, competency based education tends to be more flexible than traditional learning and may take less time.

How Does Competency Based Learning Work?

Competency based learning works by allowing you to master specific skills related to your area of study at your own pace. In other words, you progress when you show you know the content.

Many universities that offer CBE learning offer it online. Students have available to them multiple resources like their professors and other support to master each competency. Once you feel confident you have mastered a competency, you must show a faculty member that you do have mastery of the skill.

How Long Does it Take to Earn a Competency Based Bachelor Degree Online?

Ultimately, the time it takes to earn a competency based bachelor degree online depends on how quickly you are able to master each competency required for the degree.

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You may be able to test out of some skills if you have previous work experience, which can shorten the time it takes to earn your degree. The fastest students may be able to complete an online bachelor degree in as short of a span as a year. Most students tend to take between 2 to 3 years to complete a program.

Who Benefits From Competency Based Degree Programs?

There are many types of individuals that may benefit from attending and earning a degree from a competency based university.

Here are some types of people that may benefit from this type of education:

  • Working Adults: If you are a working person holding down a full-time job, then the flexibility a competency based program offers may be extremely beneficial.
  • Military Members: Members of the military may similarly benefit from the flexibility a competency based degree affords them due to their busy schedule.
  • Returning Students: Students who previously completed a certain amount of college credits may benefit from transferring these credits to a competency based program.

This is not everyone who may benefit from a competency based program. Review your circumstances to see if these programs are right for you.

What’s the Difference Between Competency Based Education vs. Traditional Education Program?

A competency-based degree program is structured differently. Instead of focusing on completing a prerequisite number of credit hours and courses, students are required to demonstrate “competency” in various skills that allow them to move forward in their degree program.

Competency Based Education Traditional Education
  • Flexible timelines based on skills acquired and your own pace
  • Cost is based on the time it takes to complete the course and skills you may already possess
  • Coursework tends to be project and skill based
  • Pace varies and is determined by your ability to complete projects, master skills, and pass assessments
  • Concrete timelines for degree programs
  • Cost is based on tuition set by each school
  • Coursework varies based on school, course, and instructor
  • Pace is fixed and determined based on the number of credits you need for each semester.

For those with a great deal of professional experience or previous college education, a competency-based program may be a flexible option to turn your life experience into a college degree.

Are Competency Based Courses Worth it?

Yes, competency based courses are worth it for many professionals. Earning a degree from a CBE program may show that you have mastered a skillset applicable to the field you are studying.

In addition, if you do work full-time, then your availability to attend a traditional program may be limited. A competency based program may be an advantage in this regard. Some common programs where you can use your skills to earn your degree include business, accounting, and information technology (IT).

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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment in the business sector is expected to see a 7% job growth over the next 10 years, while the job growth for information technology jobs is projected to increase by 15% within the same time period.

List of Competency Based Colleges

Methodology: The following school list is in alphabetical order. To be included, a college or university must be regionally accredited and offer degree programs online or in hybrid competency-based degree programs.

Capella University

Capella University

Capella University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Indiana Wesleyan University

Indiana Wesleyan University

Indiana Wesleyan University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Northern Arizona University

Northern Arizona University

Northern Arizona University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Purdue University

Purdue University

Purdue University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

South Texas College

South Texas College

South Texas College is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

University of Louisville

University of Louisville

The University of Louisville is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

University of Phoenix

University of Phoenix

The University of Phoenix is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

University of Wisconsin

University of Wisconsin Whitewater

The University of Wisconsin is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Walden University

Walden University

Walden is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Western Governors University

Western Governors University

Western Governors University is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

Getting Your Competency Based Degree Online

The expansion of online education has allowed for many non-traditional formats of higher education, like competency based education, to spread.

Competency based education may allow many people who want to earn a degree, but previously could not due to their circumstances, to attempt higher education. Attending a competency based program may be beneficial for those who need a flexible learning environment that allows them to work at their own pace.

If this sounds like something that may work for your situation, you can start working toward your career goals by researching accredited schools that offer competency based programs that match your skill set.

Ready to start your journey?
Leon Aristeguieta
WRITTEN BY Leon Aristeguieta

Leon is currently pursuing an M.A. in History from Florida Atlantic University. He holds both a B.A. in History and a B.S. in Communications with a concentration in Journalism from Clarion University of Pennsylvania. Leon's research interests include the Cold War in Latin America and US-Latin American relations.