Skip the time-consuming lectures and the expensive tuition: You can earn college credit or even a full, accredited degree using the experience and knowledge you already have. Compared to the usual route, competency-based education (CBE) is an often faster and cheaper path to a diploma, designed by colleges and universities with busy working adults in mind.
For over a century, college courses have been designed around seat time: You have to spend a certain number of “credit hours” in lectures or labs to get your degree. For many people, however, the time-based approach isn’t the best. Maybe you tried college and stopped, or skipped college to work full-time but have in-depth, on-the-job knowledge. Or maybe you’re an independent learner who takes free online classes and want a degree for your effort. That’s where CBE comes in: You earn credits or a degree based on what you know and can do, rather than where and when you took a course. Here’s how it works.
Test Out of Class or Create a Portfolio to Earn a Degree
Instead of attending courses, students in competency-based education programs prove they’ve mastered the material through tests or projects.
You might already be familiar with standardized tests like Advanced Placement (AP), College Level Examination Program (CLEP), and DSST, which many colleges grant credit for passing. However, these options are limited. Policies vary by institution, but some colleges only grant credit towards electives, and others count them as exemptions, allowing you to test out of a prerequisite but not earn credit towards a degree.
Competency-based education programs can include the exams above, but they go beyond that. These programs are centered around students’ personalized learning objectives, and you can get credit for work experience, professional training, military training, or online learning. Here’s a video intro from C-BEN, a network of colleges and universities offering CBE.
There are at least 40 colleges and universities that offer competency-based education programs, including Michigan State University, George Mason University, and University of Maryland University College. These institutions most commonly grant bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business (including marketing and accounting), communications, health care (including nursing and health care management), teaching, and IT. Some other, less common degrees you can earn through a CBE program include an MFA in creative writing, Ph.D in Leadership and Change, and MS in Psychology. If you have experience already in one of these fields, you’ll have a leg up in one of these programs.
The kinds of assignments and tests you take depend on your subject. These are some of the assessments, for example, used by Western Governor’s University, one of the largest and earliest institutions to offer CBE:
- Assignments involving problem-solving. (e.g., Science or Information Technology)
- Computerized exams consisting of 50 multiple-choice, matching, and other question types. (e.g., Mathematics)
- Projects requiring the student to design a lesson plan. (e.g., Teaching)
- Reflection essays about case studies. (e.g., MBA)
- Research papers on particular topics within the student’s field.
You can even complete exams in your own home via remote proctoring.
At other colleges, such as SUNY Empire State College, you can get credit for prior learning (known as PLA, or Prior Learning Assessment) by working with a mentor to document what you’ve learned in a portfolio. Your portfolio might include professional certifications, work samples, or other supporting documents. As Thomas Edison State University describes it:
A portfolio in the PLA [Prior Learning Assessment] process is a written presentation that you assemble and submit to earn credit for knowledge you have that is equivalent to what would be taught in a specific course. Each portfolio addresses a course description and learning outcomes through a written narrative and a collection of evidence that support your knowledge and background. The Portfolio Assessment process is managed, submitted and reviewed completely online.
There’s no limit to the number of credits you can earn through many of these programs, but there’s one caveat: Depending on the program, credits might not be transferrable to other colleges or universities, so watch out for that if you plan to transfer credits.
Learn at Your Own Pace and Enjoy “All You Can Eat” Pricing
Rather than charging you per credit hour, most competency-based education programs charge a flat tuition rate every few months. You work online and at your own pace, taking as many course assessments as you want. This can save both time and money, assuming you’re motivated enough to work hard and perhaps have prior knowledge to draw upon so you can earn your degree quickly.
One student review of a competency-based education program said:
I completed 72 competency units in a single six-month term at a regionally accredited institution. This means I am on track to earn a bachelor of science within a year of starting the program, gaining certifications along the way, and only paying about $6,000. I will graduate with no education debt. This requires commitment and motivation from me, but is a perfect fit for my learning style and current position in my path in life.
That might not be typical of every student who enrolls in a competency-based education program, but it’s an example of what’s possible if you have the time and buckle down to do the work required.
Also, because you’re in control of your education, you might be more likely to succeed. The Council for Adult & Experiential Learning found that students who earned college credit through Prior Learning Assessment had two and a half times higher graduation rates compared to those who didn’t have PLA credit. They also were more likely to stay in the program and completed their degrees faster.
Where to Find Competency-Based Programs
If this all sounds good to you, you have a number of options to explore. You can read about dozens of CBE programs at C-BEN, including those offered by Antioch University, Broward College, City University of Seattle, Northern Arizona University, Rasmussen College, and University of Michigan. Michigan State University also lists several schools with competency-based programs.
Another option is College for America. It’s only available to employees of 100-plus participating companies, but if your employer is one of them (McDonald’s, GAP, and Anthem are among them), you could get your degree for just $2,500 a year. College for America offers BA degrees in management, communications, and healthcare management, as well as associate’s degrees in healthcare management and general studies with a concentration in business.
Teachur is the latest CBE program on the scene, and it promises to grant a bachelor’s degree for $1,000 total. Teachur isn’t live yet, but it’s something to keep an eye on if you’re looking for the cheapest route to a BA.
Before you sign up for a competency-based program, though, you should ask yourself a few questions. Here are a few big ones:
- What kind of academic and career support will you get from the program?
- Is it eligible for financial aid? (At least 40 of them are)
- How easy is it to transfer credits into the program or get prior learning credit?
Competency-based education might not be for everyone. As with other independent learning options, you have to be self-motivated. If you take your sweet time completing the assessments, the cost of your degree could rival (or even exceed) that of a traditional college program. And, depending on the program, you might not have the social support or networking opportunities that other college students enjoy.
Still, for busy adults looking for a way to get a degree without going into debt to go back to school or who want to avoid sleazy for-profit universities, this is a great, growing option. It’s never too late to get that degree, especially when you have a cheaper, faster, and more personalized option than the traditional butts-in-seats model.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.