Competency-Based Degree Programs On The Rise

Jan 26, 2015

LA Johnson/NPR

By Anya Kamenetz

Competency-based education is in vogue — even though most people have never heard of it, and those who have can’t always agree on what it is.

A report out today from the American Enterprise Institute says a growing number of colleges and universities are offering, or soon will offer, credits in exchange for direct demonstrations of learning. That’s a big shift from credit hours — the currency of higher education for more than a century — which require students to spend an allotted amount of time with instructors.

A “competency” might be a score on a standardized exam or a portfolio of work. These are types of credit familiar to most people: think AP exams. But they are being applied to core requirements, not just used for skipping electives or introductory courses.

And in a newer, even more experimental trend, institutions such as Western Governors University are offering entire degree programs that allow students to move at their own pace, completing assignments and assessments as they master the material.

The major argument in favor of competency-based programs is that they will offer nontraditional students a more direct, more affordable path to a degree. This argument is especially made on behalf of older students who can earn college credits based on prior workplace or life experience. The AEI report, by Robert Kelchen, found that 9 out of 10 competency-based students are older than 25.


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3 comments on “Competency-Based Degree Programs On The Rise

  • When we get the internet into the third world, there will be a lot of self taught people who will need some way to have their skills recognised.

    Except for my chem and physics labs, I might as well have just watched the lectures on the Internet, and read ebook versions of my texts. This SHOULD be very cheap to give to everyone.



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  • CBT was forced on the Australian Technical and Further Education systems about twenty years ago. It was, and remains a disaster, it was referred to as monkeyseemonkeydo, even by the lecturers in the trades area.

    Theory was out, performance-on-the-day and recognition of prior learning were in, moreover assessed by the class teachers without the “unnecessary added expense” of examinations. At about the same time the bean counters also realised that teacher training was unnecessary for TAFE lecturers, so untrained and even casual teachers were responsible for teaching, supervising and testing students. One result is that now mass migrations trades people are imported from overseas, in order to keep mining and industry functioning.



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  • Some of the UK university exam papers I see are rigorous.

    “Answer ALL questions”, or maybe “choose 6 questions from 8”, on mathematics, engineering, or genetics, – including: formulae, diagrams, graphs and calculations.

    Others like Social History – “pick 2 questions from 8 – and discuss”, are less so.



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