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

Student preparing requirements for a Competency Based Degree

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.


University offering Competency Based Degrees

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

Competency Based Degree financial aid

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?

Students taking Competency Based Degree

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?

students studying in a university classroom

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?

student getting his 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?

Working adult taking Competency Based Degree

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?

adult students taking Competency Based Degree

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 offers competency-based programs designed for adult learners who need to get their education quickly. The school works with experts to craft programs that will help people move forward in their careers. Students can earn competency-based degrees in fields like nursing, information technology, or psychology pre-counseling. All programs are fully online.

Capella University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Indiana Wesleyan University

Indiana Wesleyan University

Indiana Wesleyan University offers competency-based degree programs that are designed to help students learn quickly and affordably. Students can work at their own pace and take as many classes as they want per term. They are assessed on workplace mastery and may get credit for previous work experience. Areas of study offered include communication and biblical studies.

Indiana Wesleyan University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Northern Arizona University

Northern Arizona University

Northern Arizona University offers competency-based degrees through personalized learning programs. Students get to move through their chosen degrees at their own pace and even set their own deadlines. Programs are fully online and accredited. The school offers bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. Fields of study offered include computer information technology, nursing, management, and human resources.

Northern Arizona University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Purdue University

Purdue University

Purdue University’s Global program offers a few competency-based options for students looking to fast-track their education and careers.

ExcelTrack allows students to earn credit for previous schooling and work experience. Students in this program may move through their courses quickly and pay a flat rate per semester. Bachelor’s and master’s programs are offered in fields such as healthcare administration and cybersecurity management.

Purdue University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

South Texas College

South Texas College

Students at South Texas College can earn certificates, associate degrees, or bachelor’s degrees through the school’s competency-based education program. Students in this program pay a flat rate per 7 week term and can take as many courses as they want per term. Students may be able to get credit for previous experience. Areas of study offered include organizational leadership and operations management.

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 offers a BS in Organizational Leadership and Learning with an emphasis in Healthcare Leadership. This competency-based degree program is entirely online. Students may earn up to 48 credits through a prior learning assessment, allowing them to save on tuition. The Flex Option allows students to move through the program at their own pace.

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

University of Phoenix

University of Phoenix

Students may take competency-based programs through the University of Phoenix. These programs are fully online, and some students can finish in just a year. Terms are 16 weeks long. Students can take as many courses as they want at their own pace with instructor guidance. Areas of study offered include business administration, information systems, and RN-to-BSN.

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

University of Wisconsin

University of Wisconsin Whitewater

Students who want a competency-based degree may enroll in the University of Wisconsin’s Flexible Option. Courses start each month. Students in this program move at their own pace, taking assessments when they’re ready. They can get help from instructors as needed and may earn credit for what they already know. Areas of study offered include biological sciences, diagnostic imaging, and business administration.

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

Walden University

Walden University

Walden University’s Tempo Learning program allows students to progress through their degrees at their own pace. Students can take assessments when they’re ready instead of re-hashing material they already know. Tempo Learning is fully online, and students pay a subscription fee to take unlimited courses each term. Areas of study offered include psychology and early childhood.

Walden is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Western Governors University

Western Governors University

At Western Governors University, students progress through their degrees as they master content, not at the end of a term. Students pay for 6-month terms and may take as many classes as they want during the term. They may be able to get credit for prior knowledge and experience. Fields of study offered include marketing, accounting, and data analytics.

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

Getting Your Competency Based Degree Online

Student pursuing 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.

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Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.