10 Best Competency Based Masters Degrees [2024 Guide]

By Joy Cromwelle
Updated on February 28, 2024
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A competency based masters program could be a quick and affordable way to earn a higher degree and achieve your career goals.

Competency Based Masters Degrees

Whether you want to advance in your current line of work or switch to a new field, a graduate degree may offer the preparation that you need. Many master’s programs take 2 years to complete, but competency based colleges offer an alternative approach to earning a degree.

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If you want flexibility and a tailored learning experience, then you might check out the benefits of a competency-based master’s degree.

What’s the Difference Between Traditional vs. CBE Masters Programs?

woman taking Competency Based Masters Programs

According to the US Department of Education, the competency-based educational approach organizes academic content based on a student’s current knowledge, or competency. This is in contrast to the traditional approach of organizing content by course.

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In a competency-based education (CBE) program, you can advance at your own pace. For the topics with which you are already familiar, you can demonstrate your knowledge and move on. When you encounter new material, you’ll have opportunities to slow down, study the topic, and absorb the information. Once you learn it, you’ll demonstrate that and then advance to the next portion of the program.

Here are some differences between CBE and traditional masters programs.

Competency Based Masters Programs Traditional Masters Programs
  • Often include short modules—may be worth only 1 credit each
  • Allow you to go at your own pace
  • Begin with an assessment to determine where students are in their learning
  • Modify the material based on students’ knowledge
  • Require more self-direction and motivation
  • May charge by term
  • Use standard-length classes, often worth 3 credits each
  • Have a set length for courses
  • May start all students at the same point
  • Use the same lessons and learning assignments for all students
  • Offer a set schedule with deadlines
  • Typically charge by credit hour

If you have relevant knowledge and experience and want to complete a degree as quickly as possible, then seeking out a CBE program could be a strategic choice.

What Are the Benefits of a CBE Graduate Degree?

students researching for benefits that competency based masters degrees offer

Many adult learners appreciate the unique benefits that competency based masters degrees offer, such as:

  • Cost savings. Competency-based learning often uses a pay-by-term approach. The more modules you can progress through each term, the less you’ll pay for grad school overall.
  • Flexible pacing. With a CBE program, instead of sticking to a week-by-week lesson schedule, you can determine how quickly or slowly you progress.
  • Frequent assessments. CBE programs evaluate your knowledge with an initial assessment and additional checkpoints. These provide a clear picture of what you already know and what you still need to learn.
  • Personalized learning. You won’t have to spend much time engaging in lessons and assignments for topics you already know. Instead, you can dig into areas that are new to you.
  • Real-world emphasis. The goal of a CBE program is to equip you with the practical skills that are necessary for the workforce.

CBE programs tend to be innovative and offer solid career preparation.

What Are the Drawbacks?

motivated student taking Competency-Based Master’s Degree

While competency-based learning can be strategic, it may not be the best fit for every student. Here are some potential drawbacks:

  • Lack of critical thinking assessments. Since this type of program is so skills-based, you may not be required to demonstrate in-depth critical thinking skills as often as you would in a typical graduate program.
  • Narrow focus. CBE programs are specifically designed to equip you with the skills for a particular line of work. If you want a greater breadth to your studies, then a more traditional program may be a better fit.
  • Need for self-direction. If you work better with firm deadlines and regular class sessions, then you may find it challenging to keep moving in CBE studies.
  • Potential for higher costs. Moving slowly through the competencies could end up costing you more than a traditional program.

Despite these drawbacks, CBE can still be a beneficial choice for many motivated students who are focused on a particular goal.

How Does a CBE Program Work?

Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education is a form of online learning. While each school may use a slightly different format, CBE programs often follow a framework like the one below:

  • Initial knowledge check. For each course or competency, you will start by assessing what you already know about the topic.
  • Learning activities. You will progress through activities designed to grow your knowledge of the topic and equip you with skills. These might include discussion boards, reading selections, practice problems, or hands-on activities.
  • Assessment. You’ll complete an assessment—which may be a project, a paper, a presentation, a lab, or an exam—to demonstrate your understanding.
  • Next steps. If you pass the assessment, you receive credit for that competency and move on to the next section of your program. If you don’t pass, you can repeat the lessons and redo the assessment.

You can graduate after you show that you’ve mastered all of the required competencies for your program.

Benefits of Online Learning

student taking an Online Learning degree

In recent years, online learning has exploded in popularity—for good reason! Here are some potential benefits:

  • Communication opportunities. In an online program, your professors and classmates are just an email or a discussion board away.
  • Flexibility that works for your schedule. If you aren’t available during traditional class hours, you can take asynchronous online courses with 24/7 access to learning materials.
  • No commute. Online learning allows you to take courses from schools across the country without ever having to leave your home.
  • Repeated lessons. You can often pause and rewind online lectures and videos so that you can take notes and fully comprehend the material.
  • Technology know-how. The more time you spend using tech-based platforms to complete your work, the more ready you can be for today’s technology-driven work environment.

In addition to competency-based programs, there are also accelerated and standard-length online degree programs.

How to Choose an Online CBE Graduate Program

man getting an Online Competency Based Masters Program

While competency-based degrees aren’t traditional, you can choose from multiple schools that offer them. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Accreditation. To ensure that your school offers academic excellence, it’s strategic to select a regionally accredited college for any degree you pursue.
  • Assessment methods. You might be curious to know whether your competence will be determined by tests or if you’ll do more projects and papers. Some schools lean more toward one of these formats, and others may use an even mix.
  • Cost. If you expect to get done with school quickly, you can look for a pay-per-term school. If you might need extended time, you could opt for a program with a more traditional tuition structure.
  • Degree and curriculum. Competency-based programs usually get you ready for a specific line of work and aren’t widely transferrable to other industries. You can look for a school that offers your chosen area of study and a curriculum that focuses on real-world skills and knowledge.
  • Free previews. A free trial period can help you learn more about whether this approach to education is a good fit, especially if you’re still on the fence about enrolling.

When choosing a CBE masters program, it can also be helpful to read reviews and talk to recent students.

What Colleges Offer Competency-Based Master’s Programs?

Colleges Offering Competency Based Masters Programs

If you’re looking to advance your education while juggling a busy schedule, competency-based master’s programs could be a strategic fit. This section highlights some of the accredited colleges that offer these flexible and practical options.

Purdue University Global

Purdue University Global’s ExcelTrack offers competency-based master’s programs with students’ professional backgrounds in mind. Here are some defining factors of their CBE programs:

  • Accelerate with your expertise. Use your professional experience to advance quickly through what you already know.
  • Tailored learning at your own pace. Take as many courses as you like each term for a single tuition fee.
  • Specialized courses. Engage in focused single-credit courses and hone specific skills for your career advancement.
  • Personalized support for your success. Access dedicated support, including tutoring and resources.

Purdue Global offers a variety of CBE master’s degrees in key areas like business administration and information technology. You can find the one that directly aligns with your career aspirations.

Walden University

Walden University’s Tempo Learning format follows a competency-based structure, blending advanced learning with your existing professional schedule. Here are some essential traits of Walden’s CBE masters programs:

  • Master’s on your terms. Progress at your own pace, balancing your studies with work and personal commitments.
  • Budget-friendly subscription. Enjoy a fixed subscription fee for a 3-month period, with unlimited courses and assessments.
  • Leverage your professional know-how. Apply your work experience to cover familiar ground in your master’s program.
  • Dedicated support tailored for you. Receive personalized assistance from faculty and academic coaches whenever needed.

Tempo Learning at Walden University offers a range of master’s programs in fields like business, education, and health.

Western Governors University

Western Governors University provides an adaptable learning experience through CBE masters programs tailored to your knowledge and time constraints. Here are some highlights of their competency-based programs:

  • Learn at your own pace. Accelerate through material you already know and take time where you need it.
  • Relevant and practical. CBE master’s programs are crafted to enhance skills directly applicable in your career field.
  • Affordable tuition model. CBE students pay per 6-month term, not per credit.
  • Personalized faculty support. One-on-one support from faculty mentors is available and tailored to your learning style and schedule.

With WGU’s wide selection of competency-based master’s programs, you can choose from a variety of programs in business, IT, education, and nursing.

Financial Aid and Scholarships for CBE Degrees

Financial Aid and Scholarships for CBE Degrees

You may be able to take advantage of financial aid opportunities to assist with your completion of a CBE degree.

If you qualify, both state and federal funding, such as graduate loans, may be available to you. To access such support, you can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Your school’s financial aid office can provide specific information about whether its CBE programs meet eligibility guidelines. You can also see how heavy of a course load you’re required to take each semester to qualify.

In addition, you can look into scholarship opportunities from your school or other organizations. Your employer may also contribute to your tuition costs.

What Is a CBE Master Degree?

A competency based education (CBE) masters degree is a flexible, student-centered approach to earning a graduate degree. You progress through the required modules at your own pace. When you already have a good understanding of a topic, you will likely advance quickly through that section.

When encountering new topics, you can engage with instructional materials and take your time becoming familiar with them. Various assessments are used to evaluate a student’s progress. Competency-based grad programs typically prepare students for specific industries.

How Long Does It Take to Get a CBE Master’s Degree Online?

competency-based colleges

The length of your CBE master’s degree depends largely on you. If you have previously mastered a lot of the material, then you will be able to speed up your studies.

Likewise, if you are driven to learn new topics as quickly as possible, then you will probably progress through the modules at a faster pace. Overall, students often complete these degrees in less than 1 year, sometimes in as little as 6 months.

Is It Cost-Effective to Pursue a CBE Masters Degree?

Typically, competency-based colleges charge flat fees. You’ll likely pay a set amount each semester. If you have the time and motivation to complete many modules during each term, then your overall program length will be shorter.

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As a result, you could pay less money—perhaps significantly less than you would for a traditional program. But this means that the opposite could be true as well. If you make slow progress, your degree may be more costly.

Universities Offering Online CBE Masters Degree Programs

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 a hybrid format.

Grace Theological Seminary

Grace Theological Seminary campus

Grace Theological Seminary is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Lipscomb University

Lipscomb University campus

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

Lourdes University

Lourdes University campus

Lourdes University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Merrimack College

Merrimack College campus

Merrimack College is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education.

Purdue University

Purdue University campus

Purdue University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

University of Maine – Presque Isle

University of Maine campus

The University of Maine – Presque Isle is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education.

University of Massachusetts

University of Massachusetts Global campus

The University of Massachusetts is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education.

University of Phoenix

University of Phoenix campus

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

Walden University

Walden University campus

Walden is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Western Governors University

Western Governors University campus

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

Explore Competency Based Master’s Degree Online Programs

Competency Based Masters Degree Programs Online

Competency based education colleges offer an innovative approach to higher education. You can earn your master’s degree through a combination of showing what you already know and gaining new knowledge.

Assessments along the way will demonstrate the progress that you are making toward mastery of your chosen field. You can even move at your own pace toward completion. If you’re a self-motivated learner with your eyes on a specific goal, then you might be a fitting candidate for a CBE degree program.

The sooner you start exploring the CBE options available from accredited schools, the sooner you can enroll in the competency-based online master’s program that’s right for you.

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WRITTEN BY
Joy is pursuing her Ph.D. in Public Policy & Foreign Policy at Liberty University and holds a Master of Business Administration in Strategic Management from Amberton University, as well as a Bachelor's in Business Administration from Columbia College. With over 20 years of experience navigating online degrees and courses, Joy's focus is helping non-traditional students find accelerated degree options and credit for prior learning opportunities.