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Why a Competency-Based Degree Makes Sense

8/05/2014 11:49 am

Competency Based Education

For over a century, higher education has been based around the credit hour. The idea behind this system is simple. Students go to class and therefore spend a certain amount of time learning, which then is quantified into credit until a number has been reached that warrants a degree. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, the fact is that measuring time isn’t always the best way to measure learning; some subjects take more time to learn, others not so much—and that time usually varies from student to student.

Despite the long-standing implementation and widespread acceptance of the credit-hour system, many established institutions are shifting toward competency-based systems. A competency-based education reevaluates the way we consider learning, focusing on what students know and what they can do, rather than how much time they have spent in a classroom. In today's fast-paced technological world, a competency-based degree program gives students the power to take control of their education in a way traditional classrooms have not. Students benefit from a competency-based degree program because they can learn based on their life experience, advance at their own pace, and often save a significant amount of money. 

What is a Competency-Based Degree?

Whereas a traditional college or university focuses on time spent learning, competency-based educators focus on assessment of what has been learned. For example, if you are considering a career in nursing, you would learn skills relevant to a nurse's normal work day—and you’d advance through your program by proving that you’ve learned those skills and acquired the knowledge employers are looking for. A team of experts works to develop assignments that prove competency, usually in the form of an exam or paper. Traditionally, higher education institutions put a lot of academic and financial value on attending classes, which sometimes means sitting with a vacant expression in an overcrowded lecture hall. A competency-based education breaks students out of that classroom, and instead focuses on preparing them for the working world by giving them resources to learn what they still need to learn—and move quickly past material they have already mastered.  

Competency Based Education

Learn on Your Schedule

For many of people, it's not possible to stop working and dedicate all of their time toward achieving a degree. The fact is that most people gain a lot of their skills and knowledge during the work day and need to maintain a job to live comfortably, even while attending school. You shouldn't have to put your education on hold just because you want to hold on to your job as well. Competency-based education gives students the opportunity not only to learn on their own schedules, but also to take skills learned on the job and use them to prove mastery. Think about it: If you've already put in a number of hours tutoring high school students in your spare time, you can apply the knowledge you picked up from that experience as you work toward a degree in teaching.  

Save Time and Money

A competency-based education allows students to work at their own pace, which often saves time and money. Students are able to take assessments as soon as they are competent in the subject matter, making it possible to achieve a degree faster. Pre-assessments help them identify what they already know well and what areas they need to focus on studying, and passing an assessment means proving you know your stuff—the stuff that matters to employers. This ensures students will be confident when entering the workforce in the profession of their choice. The average time to earn a bachelor’s degree at competency-based WGU is less than three years. 

Moreover, many competency-based institutions, such as WGU, charge by the term rather than by the credit hour or course, so students can make the most of every dollar spent. If a student is able to charge through two terms’ worth of work for the price of one, it is possible. In a competency-based degree program, spending less time to graduate means spending less money, so graduates can earn their degrees with much less debt—or even none at all!


Western Governors University is a nonprofit, accredited, online university. Find out more about WGU's online bachelor's and master's degree programs.

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