Written by Joanna Hughes

Competency-based education is getting lots of buzz these days in higher education circles, both in the context of classroom and online learning. But do you really know what it’s all about? Read on for five things students should know about competency-based education. 

1. It measures mastery of content, not passage of time. 

Says the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), “Competency-based learning is a system of education, often referred to as proficiency or mastery-based, in which students advance and move ahead on their lessons based on demonstration of mastery. In order for students to progress at a meaningful pace, schools and teachers provide differentiated instruction and support.”

In other words, while time-based courses last a specific amount of time and students only advance after they’ve fulfilled that time requirement, competency-based classes allow them to move on when they’ve mastered the competencies. Asserts educational technology and entrepreneurship pioneer Dr. Robert Mendenhall, “So, while most colleges and universities hold time requirements constant and let learning vary, competency-based learning allows us to hold learning constant and let time vary.”

2. It is particularly promising for adult learners.

Competency-based education is applauded for its ability to let students learn at their own pace. However, it has special benefits for adult learners. 

“We know two things about adult learners — they come to higher education knowing different things, and they learn at different rates. Competency-based education recognizes this reality and matches the education to the student,” says Mendenhall. “Unlike a one-size-fits-all approach, it allows adults to come back to college and apply what they’ve learned, either through formal education or their work and life experience. They can move quickly through material they already know and focus on what they still need to learn. For many, this means that they can accelerate their progress toward a degree, saving both time and money,” he concludes. 

3. The price is not fixed.

While competency-based education has many allures, there may also be some downsides -- especially for less motivated students. Traditional courses come with a fixed price: Students pay per credit per course and in return get both structure and incentive.

Conversely, competency-based courses typically use “all-you-can-take subscription models.” For students who are less motivated or prone to procrastination, however, competency-based programs may lengthen both cost and time-to-credential. 

The takeaway? While competency-based education may be more affordable for accelerated students, the opposite may be true for different kinds of learners. 

4. Most employers are unfamiliar with it -- yet open to it.

As online studies have become increasingly mainstream, employers have become increasingly open to candidates with online degrees. But how do they feel about competency-based learning, which is still a relative newcomer in the higher education sphere? 

According to a recent report from U.S. News & World Report, while competency-based learning may be lesser-known, it may also not be fighting the same stigmas once associated with online learning. Why not? Because employers are actually looking for employees with clearly defined skills and experiences. In fact, according to one survey, “One hundred percent of respondents said they would consider hiring a candidate with a competency-based degree for positions requiring a college education.”

5. Its impact on academic quality is still unknown. 

Competency-based education promises to save money for both colleges and students. But how do these “efficiency gains” impact academic quality?  A report from higher education consulting firm rpkGROUP suggests that there’s still work to be done on this front. Its assertion? “Success for these new delivery models will require that they positively impact student completion while also producing sustainable business models.”

According to higher education experts, it all comes down to execution. History professor Amy Slaton cautions, “Budget versions of education, like surgery or car repairs, are no bargain. In such outcomes-focused college curriculums, stripped of ‘unnecessary’ instruction, open-ended, liberal learning easily is deemed wasteful.”

Counters the rpkGROUP’s report of the benefits of a successful competency-based education program, “What students need to know, understand and be able to do to earn credentials is clearly articulated and students can progress rapidly through competencies they have previously mastered, which could shorten the time to degree. Students also are provided additional time for mastering application of difficult concepts.”

While we may not know the degree to which competency-based education programs will supersede traditional education programs, we do know that there’s potential. Said Association for Talent Development executive editor Patricia Galagan, “Many competency-based programs are really in their infancy right now. But the initial results are promising, and the programs could change and revive online learning.” 

Do you have experience with competency-based learning, and did it benefit you? Please share your comments below. 








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Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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