Moving toward competency-based college degrees

by Grace

A trend in higher education away from “time served” to “stuff learned” could mean significant savings in both time and money for many college students.

The trend seems clear.

According to Inside Higher Ed, more than 350 institutions now offer or are seeking to create competency-based degrees. So it’s a safe bet that we’ll be hearing more about this trend soon….

The “Flexible Option” at the University of Wisconsin currently offers five competency-based degrees. It’s the first public institution to receive permission to offer this kind of program….

The Lumina Foundation has been one of the most influential nonprofit groups pushing the idea of competency-based education….

Lumina is about to release the final version of a document called the “Degree Qualifications Profile.” It aims to provide a common basis for understanding the competencies required for an associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree in any field.

In its draft form, around 400 institutions from small liberal arts colleges to large community colleges have begun to use the document in their strategic planning.

The University of Michigan is one of the latest to join the movement.

The University of Michigan is now on course to become one of the first public higher education institutions to offer a degree that can be achieved not through credit hours but on demonstrated proficiency in the subjects studied. According to Inside Higher Ed, Michigan’s regional accreditor has just approved a competency-based Master’s of Health Professions Education. The program is designed to give health professionals training in “carry[ing] out the full range of responsibilities of a scholarly educator-leader.”

Rigorous oversight will be essential to the success of this new way to grant degrees.

Freed of the credit-hour constraint, competency-based programs need to be a lot more rigorous and transparent about designing assessments. Otherwise, they risk turning into diploma mills.

Employers may find this change produces more competent workers.

… The more schools have the freedom to grant degrees on the basis of proficiency rather than “time served,” the more relevant to the demands of today’s economy higher education will become.


Anya Kamenetz, “Competency-Based Education: No More Semesters?”, NPR, October 07, 2014.

Walter Russell Mead, ‘New Degrees Challenge “Time Served” Model’, The American Interest, October 25, 2014.


12 Comments to “Moving toward competency-based college degrees”

  1. Back when I taught in another school, the state had an online university that did credit by competency. I was occasionally asked to evaluate “life experience” for credit. What a crock. The assessments are very difficult to design. One of the reasons those myriad certifications don’t count for much in the software industry is that they are exam based and tell an employer little about whether a person can actually produce software.


  2. It seems that an exam of some type could be developed that would show if a person can actually produce software. It could be mult-part, and mirror projects and exams used in a traditional course. I think the only reason it could not be done is that schools (or whoever) don’t want to.


  3. I once served on a curriculum review committee at my alma mater, and what I saw was a curriculum carefully crafted such that passing all the required courses would assure a certain level of competence. Anyone not able to achieve that level of competence would not be able to fulfill the graduation requirements.

    Doesn’t that create competency-based degrees? My alma mater has been doing that for a long time.


  4. Employers usually judge whether a candidate can produce software by a mix of performance based measures – having the candidate produce code during a timed online session, or having the candidate whiteboard a solution in front of an interviewer(s) while discussing his or her reasoning process, or these days, by asking for GitHub code that the candidate has already written, typically in open source projects. Employers do not rely on traditional tests except as a pre-screening measure. And there is a reason – written tests are a really poor measure of ability to write software.

    Employer interviews can be really grueling. My husband’s company puts candidates through a whole day of this. I think it would be hard to develop cheap assessments that duplicate this.


  5. “Doesn’t that create competency-based degrees? My alma mater has been doing that for a long time.”

    Yes, it would seem so. Maybe a better term should be used, but obviously the use of “competency based” in this context has a new meaning that means no (or little) class time is required. That’s definitely a new thing.


  6. ” I think it would be hard to develop cheap assessments that duplicate this.”

    Maybe not cheap, but I think it would be cheaper than the costs of a semester’s worth of classes and assessments. I don’t know why colleges couldn’t replicate the type of assessment those companies do.


  7. Part of the reason that universities aren’t rushing towards “competency based” degrees, is that their business is teaching, not testing. And a lot of what we teach is damned hard to test. The assessments in my classes take students about 100 hours to do—not something that can be crammed into a 3-hour exam or a 1-day interview.


  8. It seems the business of teaching also includes assessment, and ultimately the goal is to prepare students for something beyond college. But I get that implementing this new model is more challenging for some disciplines than for others.


  9. Think of it this way – would you want a nurse who had never taken any courses, but had proved his or her competency in a 1 day assessment? To me, that would be scary.


  10. My understanding is that there are assessments for each required course, so in that case I would be fine. I can imagine a situation where a vocational nurse with several years of experience would be able to pass assessments for a number of classes required for a bachelor’s degree mainly based on her experience.


  11. I would find that scary for clinical courses. There are some nursing courses which are largely factoid regurgitation which could lend themselves to competency assessment.


  12. I’m unfamiliar with current clinical coursework and testing for nursing, but I wouldn’t be surprised that they already have hands-on assessments in place. If so, the new competency-based format would be a version of existing assessments.

    When I was in college I had final exams in some lab courses where students had to demonstrate ability to do the stuff, which could have come from a semester’s worth of classes or simply from other experience.


%d bloggers like this: