Competency Based Degree Programs
What if I told you that there was a way you could earn a degree faster than a traditional degree without the need to attend regular classes?
It might sound too good to be true, but with the increasing availability of competency based degree programs, this is an option that has the potential to work for many adult students. Instead of spending hours in a classroom stressing about semester after semester of attending lectures, you can now earn a degree on a schedule that fits your busy life.
So, how do you even find a competency based program? Are there any drawbacks to this type of degree? Which schools are reputable?
Considering a competency based program means that you will likely have a lot of questions, and I’m here to help you find the answers! In the information below, we’ll go over everything you need to know about competency based degrees and how you can make them work for your busy life.
Competency Based Degrees vs. Traditional Degrees
What does “competency based” even mean? The first thing you need to know about a competency based program is how it differs from a traditional degree. To put it simply, the difference lies in the way that you will earn your degree.
- Semester-long courses
- Set time for graduation
- Options for on-campus and online classes
- Standard general education credits
- Limited flexibility to work around your schedule
- Per-credit tuition fees
- Letter-based grading system
Competency Based Degrees
- Work at your own pace
- Classes scheduled on three- to six-month terms
- Courses based upon mastering skills and self-study
- Online classes
- Highest level of flexibility to suit your schedule
- Tuition paid per term—regardless of the number of credits earned
- Pass/fail grading system
As you can see, there are a lot of differences in the structure of how your courses are set up in a competency based degree vs. a traditional degree. Instead of attending college classes every week and earning a letter grade for completion at the end of the semester, in a competency based program, you will work at your own pace and submit an assessment and/or portfolio when you feel you have mastered the course.
What are the Benefits of a Competency Based Degree?
If you are a highly-motivated student who thrives on independent learning, this type of degree could be the ideal choice for you. There are several benefits to earning a degree through a competency based program, including:
- Ability to quickly move past classes you already have mastered
- Collaboration with a mentor to keep you on-track
- Complete flexibility with your class schedule
- Potential for lower tuition costs
- Faster degree completion
The flexibility of this type of program could be a great option if you are an adult student who is also trying to juggle the demands of career and family life along with earning a degree!
What are the Drawbacks of a Competency Based Degree?
The up-side of a competency based degree sounds really appealing, but there are always going to be challenges—regardless of the type of degree program you choose. Before committing to this type of degree, consider the following drawbacks:
- Time management and independent study skills are necessities
- Procrastinating on course completion can make your degree much less cost-efficient
- Transfer credits are not always accepted—for both in and out transfers
- Finding a reputable school takes some research
Overall, the biggest drawback to competency based learning is the potential of paying for an entire term without earning any credits if you procrastinate. If you choose not to complete your competencies in the term’s timeframe, you’ll still end up paying the tuition fee and have nothing to show for it.
How are Competency Based Degrees Structured?
Competency based programs focus on developing an understanding of real-world skills that are essential for employment after graduating with your degree. Because of this, you will not take traditional “classes”. Instead, you will work towards mastery of the competencies through self-study, and eventually pass an exam that allows you to complete the class.
The typical competency based degree is structured in a format similar to the following:
- You pay tuition for one term (typically three to six months) and complete as many competency units as possible during that timeframe.
- A minimum number of competency units are recommended per term in order to keep your degree program on track.
- Competency units are earned through successful completion of a course exam, portfolio, or capstone project.
- Generally, grades in this type of program are on a pass/not pass basis.
- You will be guided through your program by a mentor that will help you stay on-schedule for completing your degree.
Some schools also offer a slightly more structured form of competency degree, in which you will have assignment/deadlines sent to you each week to help keep you on pace.
How Will I Attend Classes?
Since competency based degrees are based upon self-paced study, you will not be attending a typical classroom setting to learn the skills in your classes. Instead, each aspect of your courses will be built around development of practical and critical thinking skills that translate directly to your future field.
In order to accomplish such an independent pace for your degree, you will be taking your classes online—which is a huge plus for many working adult students!
Benefits of Online Classes
Taking an online class gives you the freedom to log-on to your coursework at a time that fits into your busy life—which is exactly why they are used with competency based degree programs.
Benefits that come from taking classes online instead of sitting through in-person lectures include:
- Freedom to work on courses when its convenient for you
- Ability to spend more time on challenging subjects
- Access to extensive online resources and support
- Connection with faculty and other students through the online portal
- Potential for lower tuition and textbook costs
By giving you the freedom to attend classes online and work at a truly independent pace, a competency based degree is the ultimate in flexible higher education.
What Colleges Offer Competency Based Programs?
Now that you’ve learned a little about what a competency based program is, you’re probably wondering where you can find this type of degree!
While competency based education is a relatively new concept, more accredited schools have begun offering this type of program based upon the needs of their changing student body. There are several schools throughout the country that offer quality competency based degrees, but I’ll give you a few facts about two of the most popular:
Western Governors University (WGU)
WGU is a pioneer with competency based learning, and they offer a large variety of degree programs that can be earned through this format.
Here are a few quick facts about what makes WGU stand out from a traditional school:
- Degrees offered in Teaching, Business, IT, and Health
- Six-month term payed at a flat rate
- One-on-one guidance from a student mentor
- Regional and specialized accreditation
- Programs that meet requirements for licensure
- Bachelor’s and Master’s level degree programs
Request information from Western Governor’s University.
With its variety of degree options and proven professional track record, WGU is a great starting point for researching the possibility of earning your competency based degree.
Capella is a unique competency based college because it offers you the option of choosing a self-directed degree (FlexPath) or a more traditionally-guided degree experience (GuidedPath). Regardless of the path you choose, the school offers the following:
- Professionally aligned curriculum
- Regional and professional accreditation
- Business, Health Care, IT, Nursing, and Psychology degree programs
- Certificate, Bachelor’s, and Master’s level degrees
- Doctoral degrees offered in GuidedPath
- FlexPath option allows flat-rate tuition based on a 12-week term
- GuidedPath option offers higher-level of structure and guidance
By offering a variety of methods and options for earning your competency based degree, Capella does a good job of catering to a diverse student body with a variety of needs.
Choosing a Competency Based School
Whether you choose WGU, Capella, or one of the other universities that are beginning to offer competency based degrees, you need to make sure that your new college lives up to your expectations! After all, the last thing you want is to spend money and time on a degree that won’t hold up in the professional work place.
Take the following into consideration when you start researching different competency based programs:
- Is the school accredited? What type of accreditation do they have?
- What student support services are available?
- What are the school’s graduation and retention rates?
- Are you able to transfer credits in and out of the school?
- Are the fees economical for the course-load you will be able to complete?
- What about financial aid?
By doing your research beforehand, you can give yourself a head start in getting into a program that meets your needs and your budget.
How Long Does it Take to Earn a Competency Based Degree?
This is the million-dollar question in a lot of ways—especially since students looking into this type of program are typically trying to earn their degree as quickly as possible! However, there is no back-and-white answer to this question. Many factors play into how fast you reach graduation, including:
- Ability to transfer in credits from previous schooling
- Knowledge of skills demonstrated through credits for prior learning
- Restrictions on number of competency courses that can be taken at a time
- Number of units you are able to complete each term
To get a better idea of how fast you are likely to finish your degree, reach out to your target school during the research process. They should be able to provide you with average degree completion timeframes and statistics that will give you a clearer picture of what to expect.
Can a Competency Based Degree Save me Money?
When it comes down to it, the answer is yes… but how much money you save is ultimately up to you! As discussed earlier, competency based degrees are great for those who can quickly complete units and get through a number of courses each term.
On the flip-side, if you only complete a couple units each term, the flat rate cost will quickly wind up being much more expensive than the few credits you earned.
In short, the best way to save money on a competency based degree is to go above and beyond in completing as many units as possible for each term.
Financial Aid for Competency Based Degrees
So, what do you do when you know you can complete the course units quickly, but you’re still stressing about paying the term fee to get started?
Luckily, many of these schools accept financial aid to help students in need still earn their degrees! Financial aid can come in a number of ways that can be used to help lower the cost of your degree program, including:
- Student loans
- Federal and state grants
- Employer tuition programs
- Military discounts
The first step towards seeing what type of aid you are eligible for is filling out the FAFSA as early as possible every year. This federal form will give you a clear idea on which grants you are eligible for, and it’ll also provide you with the information you need if student loans are the best option for you. From there, check with your individual school to see what type of aid they offer to their students.
Make the Most of Your Time with Competency Based Degree Programs
Well, that’s it! Now that you know all the basics of how a competency based degree program works, it’s time to take the first step towards your future. With its flexible structure, this type of degree can be the ideal way to make your education fit into your busy daily life.
Whether you want to earn a degree to get a promotion or you want to go back to school to finish a degree you started years ago, competency based programs could be your path to reaching your long-term goals.