Published on 2013/02/07

Co-written with Anne Finnigan | Freelance Writer, Western Governors University

Why Competency-Based Degree Programs Make Sense Now
Western Governors University is currently working with a dozen community colleges to adapt WGU’s competency-based model to better serve their students by reducing their seat-time.

Competency-based learning has received a lot of media coverage in the last few years, as higher education is weathering a serious sea change. In our post-recessionary world, we’re navigating a global economy that requires workers to have highly competitive, frequently-refreshed skill sets and a strong education. Yet older students returning to school to finish their degrees or boost their skills — a rapidly growing cohort, projected to represent over 40 percent of the student population by 2020 — are often times impoverished and having to balance careers and families with their studies.[1] In addition, all students, whether older or traditional age, are struggling with the soaring costs of college; according to the New York Times, three-quarters of all Americans say college is beyond their reach financially, and student loans now hover around $1 trillion, outpacing credit card debt.[2]

These challenges make online, competency-based learning, with its focus on objective, measurable learning outcomes rather than seat time, an especially attractive option. And no other American institution has as much on-the-ground experience with it as Western Governors University (WGU), founded in 1997 and now serving about 39,000 students nationwide with online, competency-based degree programs that can save students money (tuition runs at about $6,000 a year) by saving them time to degree completion.  As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said last year, WGU and other innovative providers are still the exception, “but I want them to be the norm.”[3]

Competency Defined

At its most basic, a competency is simply knowledge plus skills — but a specific set of knowledge and skills that allows us to accomplish certain tasks or to build the abilities we need to do so.

Each competency can be broken down into a series of smaller learning objectives that, cumulatively, “scaffold up” to it. As a child learns to ride a bike, an early competency, she or he needs to master a host of other skills, from pedaling and balancing to shifting gears and braking, along with relevant knowledge, like road and safety rules. For adults learning to program a computer, a complex competency, the process is similar, though the objectives are different: choosing a programming language that suits their task and platform, learning the language’s principles, writing small programs to roadtest their knowledge of the basics, moving on to bigger programming challenges, finding learning resources and mentors that can help when they hit a snag and so on.

When 19 state governors first proposed the idea of an online, competency-based institution more than 15 years ago, they hoped it would be effective for adult learners. With a curriculum grounded in clearly-defined skills and knowledge, and learning resources explicitly linked to those competencies, WGU has created a model in which adult learners clearly understand  both what they need to learn and what they already know (and can demonstrate through assessments). They can accelerate their time-to-degree by focusing their study hours on the things they really need to learn, while moving quickly through the material they already know. And they can demonstrate their mastery when they are ready, instead of waiting until the term ends. Once they’ve demonstrated their mastery, they can move on to the next course.

Thanks to generous grant funding, WGU and its state institutions (WGU Texas, WGU Washington and WGU Indiana) started 2013 by working with more than a dozen community colleges across the country to adapt WGU’s competency-based model to serve their students.[4] The leadership of these institutions recognized the importance of having new academic and business models that preserve the integrity of their curriculum but allow students to progress at their own pace. Each of these colleges is focusing on a single area of study as the campus communities (faculty, student support personnel, administrators, etc.) learn how to implement the competency-based model.  In the coming months, WGU will be learning from them, too: discovering how well its model adapts to other institutions and finding ways to improve it.

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[1] William J. Hussar and Tabitha M. Bailey, Projections of Education Statistics to 2020, NCES 2011-026(Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2011), accessed 21 November 2012 from

[2] Tamar Lewin, “Official Calls for Urgency on College Costs,” New York Times (29 November 2011), accessed 15 December 2012 from

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sinclair Community College, OH; Broward College, FL; Austin Community College, TX; Valencia College, FL; Ivy Tech (Lafayette and Ft Wayne), IN; Lone Star College System, TX; Bellevue College, WA; Community Colleges of Spokane, WA; Columbia Basin College, WA; Edmonds Community College, WA; Tyler Junior College, TX; University of Alaska Anchorage Community & Technical College, AK; Cerritos College, CA; Clackamas Community College, OR

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Readers Comments

WA Anderson 2013/02/07 at 9:02 am

It’s good to read about WGU’s model being adapted to suit other institutions. Would WGU consider publishing best practices/lessons learned for other institutions to reference? This article doesn’t discuss what the state’s role has been in the introduction of competency-based education, except to say that some governors have been supportive of the model. It would seem that a good way for the state to get involved would be in developing, or funding for the development of, a model that can be adapted by different institutions.

This is a fantastic idea for higher education that shouldn’t be limited to a few institutions but adopted and applied more broadly.

Chuck Schwartz 2013/02/07 at 2:52 pm

The amount of student debt is staggering! This is certainly one way to address the issue while ensuring that the American workforce is properly trained for jobs that increasingly require postsecondary education. What is the rate of degree/diploma completion for individuals who enroll in competency-based programs? This could give us an indication of its success.

Stephanie Ritchie 2013/02/07 at 4:19 pm

When the curriculum is linked to a specific set of tasks or skills, this helps to prepare jobseekers for the realities of the market. Instead of the disconnect we sometimes observe between higher education priorities and market demands, there would be a more seamless transition from one sphere to the other. This benefits the American economy as much as it does the individual student. Moving forward, efforts should be made to introduce competency-based learning to more institutions.

Marlyn Husbands 2013/02/08 at 12:57 pm

Very interesting! I’ve never heard of the terminology competency based degree programmes. Although based on the definition, it sounds similar to applied degrees. Is there any research to show that graduates with competency based degrees are more successful at finding employment than those with traditional degrees? If students are coming out more prepared for the work force it would make them more attractive to an employer.

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