Want your skills to count in school? Consider a competency-based degree

mature student graduating

Course credits may shift to the periphery as a new wave of competency-based degree programs move into the spotlight. Instead of requiring students to take specific courses or invest hours in certain subjects, competency-based models provide a list of "competencies" — skills that students will need to master to obtain their degree — and allow students to complete coursework, projects and tests to demonstrate their progress.

The model has long been used by online-only institutions such as Western Governors University, but recent political pushes — including near-unanimous House passage of the Advancing Competency-Based Demonstration Act, which removes statutory barriers for some competency-based "demonstration projects" — have made the model more attractive to traditional institutions. This year, schools like Purdue Polytechnic Institute (an offshoot of Purdue University) and the University of Wisconsin System welcome their first crop of competency-based learners. Here's what you should know about competency-based degrees before you sign on.

Learn as fast as you can or as slow as you want

"… Different institutions are doing very different things with competency-based education," says Becky Klein-Collins, associate vice president of research and policy development for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. "Some are fully online and self-paced, and others incorporate some on the ground or face-to-face or traditional course formats for parts of the degree."

Competency-based programs, many of which cater to working adults and those going back to college to finish a degree, are also highly individualized. Students receive credit for skills they've already mastered through jobs and other life experiences, then spend the rest of their college tenure — oftentimes at their own pace — fulfilling the remaining competency requirements. Depending on their past experiences and learning speed, students in some competency-based programs may spend far less (or potentially more) time in school than the standard four years for a bachelor's degree.

"… It moves us away from the factory model where we expect all the students to come in at the same time, be ready to learn the same thing, learn it at the same speed and exit at the same time," says Fatma Mili, associate dean for educational research and development for Purdue Polytechnic Institute's College of Technology. "A competency-based approach … allows us to give them an opportunity to learn either as fast as they can or as slow as they are ready for."

Credentials offer proof of experience

Aaron Brower, interim chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and UW-Extension, which launched four competency-based degrees and one certificate earlier this year, says that the model also will help students prove their experience and abilities to employers.

What competency-based degrees are there?

These are some of subjects covered by skill-based certification and degree programs, based on examples from the University of Wisconsin System and Western Governors University:

  • Nursing
  • Information technology
  • Education
  • Business

The programs require self-discipline, but they can be a great fit for career-minded students who want to boost their professional potential.

Interested? Check out schools near you to find out if they have a program that suits your goals.

"We're making [a] more clear statement about the outcomes that we believe our students have," Brower says. "… A standard transcript, whether it's nursing or physics or history, is a series of courses. It doesn't really say what the student is able to do."

The downside to focusing curricula around skills rather than courses is that it can be challenging to change schools, says Charla Long, a strong proponent of competency-based curriculums and dean of professional studies at Lipscomb University, an institution that assesses student abilities upon entry and grants up to 30 credits that can be applied toward bachelors or graduate degree programs. That's on top of any coursework the student transfers in from another institution. Lipscomb students finish their degrees by taking a mix of self-paced and typical college courses, either online or physically in the classroom.

"I tell students, 'If you think you're going to be able to stick with [Lipscomb], let me talk to you about the competency-based programs,'" she says. "… If you're not real positive about your length of stay here, it's harder to transfer. … I think it's one of the challenges that we're all trying to work out." Long adds that she believes this challenge will be overcome in the future.

Debating the purpose of education

How competency-based programs determine what specific skills students will need varies too. Many schools work with area employers and industry players to model their degrees after workforce needs, but determining requisite skills in liberal arts fields that don't funnel directly into a specific career can be a challenge. Likewise, schools also dramatically differ in how students are evaluated to determine skill mastery, as well as how closely they work with classmates and faculty members to both improve and develop mentoring relationships.

Johann Neem, a history professor at Western Washington University, says that competency-based models — especially those found in online-only programs where professor-student interaction is minimal — focus on the wrong educational objective.

"The purpose of college is to make people love learning; the purpose of competency-based education is to certify people — it treats the degree, not the education, as the primary purpose," he wrote via email. In a phone interview, Neem said, "It's like passing a driver's exam. If you just want to ensure that the baseline has been met, [competency-based] is how you do it. If you want to change drivers, in other words, if you want to change the character and dispositions of educated human beings, develop real knowledge in them, that takes time …"

This is why it benefits students eyeing these programs to assess their own educational goals and ask their prospective schools about how these curricula are determined and evaluated, what level of professor-student interaction they can expect, if mentoring and experiential learning opportunities are available and how the institution seeks to replace the benefits of class time through competency-based models. Also keep in mind that both the model and how it's executed is bound to evolve as institutions suss out what's working and what's not, says Becky Klein-Collins.

"I think that we're seeing just the tip of the iceberg in what is possible through this model, and I think we're going to be seeing a lot more creativity in how to approach different areas of study or disciplines through competency-based education," she says.


Dr. Aaron Brower, Ph.D., Interim Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and UW-Extension, Interviewed by the author on Sept. 11, 2014

"Daniels awards prize for competency-based degree to Purdue Polytechnic Institute," Amanda Hamon Kunz, Purdue University Press Office, Sept. 4, 2014,

Becky Klein-Collins, Associate Vice President of Research and Policy Development for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, Interviewed by the author on Sept. 11, 2014

Charla Long, J.D., Dean of Professional Studies at Lipscomb University, Interviewed by the author on Sept. 11, 2014

Dr. Fatma Mili, Ph.D., Associate Dean of Education, Research and Development for Purdue Polytechnic Institute's College of Technology, Lead of the Purdue Polytechnic Educational R&D, Interviewed by the author on Sept. 10, 2014Purdue Polytechnic Institute Fact Sheet, Purdue University, https://news.uns.purdue.edu/images/2014/140905FactsheetPPI.pdf

Dr. Johann Neem, Ph.D. History Professor at Western Washington University, Interviewed by the author on Sept. 10, 2014

"Competency-Based Education: What It Is, How It's Different, and Why It Matters to You," University of Wisconsin System,

"Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act," U.S. Education and the Workforce Committee, July 7, 2014,