More Schools Turn to Competency-Based Education to Teach In-Demand Job Skills

Posted By Donna Fuscaldo on November 17, 2015 at 3:25 pm
More Schools Turn to Competency-Based Education to Teach In-Demand Job Skills

The current reality, with thousands of people coming out of school with degrees they can’t put to work and companies of all sizes expressing frustration about the lack of skilled graduates, has led a growing number of colleges and universities to promote competency-based education programs.

Arguing that what matters the most is mastering skills and not the amount of time spent in the classroom, both online and traditional schools around the country are starting to offer degree programs expressly designed for mastering the skills or competencies needed to use that degree to get a job out of college and succeed in today’s workplace.

Students learn at their own pace

In these programs, students must master a competency before they can move up to the next course work. Instead of basing their success on a semester of learning, students go at their own pace and once they pass an assessment that proves their competency, they move on.

“With competency-based learning it doesn’t matter how long you sat in the seat,” says Lesley Phelps, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Development at Regent Education, a financial aid management software company. What matters is: “Are you confident in the material, did you master the subject matter?”

Students in a competency-based education program work at their own pace to master each skill required by their degree program. The way this works is once a student completes a module, he/she is given a competency test. If passed – typically with a “B” or above – the student moves on to the next module or course.

At the end of the program, students are certified on a competency basis and earn a bachelor’s degree. What’s more, people who already possess certain skills are able to move more quickly through the module/s tied to those skills, instead of spending several months in a classroom relearning an area in which they are already competent.

Competency-based education programs up more than 1000%

Competency-based learning has been around for decades, but putting it into practice is gaining more traction now – and particularly in the last year. Consider this: about 600 colleges are in the design or implementation phase of competency-based education programs, up from a mere 52 last year. Programs are being implemented at public institutions like The University of Michigan and Purdue University, as well as in private colleges across the country.

Earlier this year, the Association of American Colleges and Universities in conjunction with Hart Research Associates, conducted a survey of employers and found 58 percent said improvements are needed to prepare college graduates for success in entry-level positions and to move up the corporate ladder. McKinsey & Company found 40 percent of employers said they can’t fill entry-level jobs because of a lack of skills on the part of graduates.

The new push for competency-based education (CBE) also comes in response to the situation many recent graduates face including being saddled with thousands of dollars in student loan debt, unemployed or underemployed. Going forward, students in competency-based programs could save money on their degrees by learning at their own pace and potentially earning a bachelor’s degree quicker than the present four-year standard.

CBE popular in areas where there are skill shortages

Competency-based learning can be applied to pretty much every degree, but most schools offering it are focusing on the areas in which employers are facing a shortage of skilled workers. This means students will more easily find competency-based degree programs in healthcare – and particularly nursing – business, science, technology, engineering, mathematics and information technology.

“Universities are doing market demand analysis to see what the needs are for employment,” says Laurie Dodge, Vice Chancellor of Institutional Assessment and Planning and Vice Provost at Brandman University. Dodge notes competency-based education programs can be found both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, with more programs available at the bachelor’s level.

Online schools leading the charge

Most of the degrees are being offered by online schools, largely because technology makes it possible for students to learn at their own pace rather than in a classroom. Traditional schools are creating hybrid-type programs in which there are online learning and classroom coursework components.  Many of the programs are also accredited and participate in Federal Financial Aid, which means students can get help paying for competency-based degrees.

These programs are particularly attractive to adult students who already work in a field and have the experience but need the degree to move up the corporate ladder or get a better a job. After all, there are 36 million people in the U.S. alone who have started to pursue a college degree but, for whatever reason, never completed it.

At Western Governors University, an online, accredited school, the majority of students are age 30 and up. What’s more, the lion’s share started their undergraduate degrees somewhere else but did not finish.  Currently, there are 61,000 students enrolled at WGU, and the school counts about 52,000 students graduated. Schools like WGU are adding students in droves because of the demand for skills that can get them hired.

“The reason employers really understand competency-based education is because that’s their language,” says Kate Kazin, Chief Academic Officer of College for America at Southern New Hampshire University, an institution geared toward working adults. “When employers are thinking about who they will hire, they talk about what competencies they need,” not what degree the candidate has.

Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo is a freelance journalist hailing out of Long Island, New York. She has also written for,,,, Business Insider, Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal.

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