Competency-Based Education: What It Is, How It’s Different, and Why It Matters to You

skillsEveryone is talking about competency-based education, and for good reason. New competency-based programs such as the UW Flexible Option have the potential to revolutionize higher education by personalizing student learning and making it possible for millions of adults to at last earn a college degree while balancing work and family.

But what is competency-based education, and how is it different from the traditional model? Most importantly, what does it mean to you?

Competency-based education explained

Competency-based education is different from traditional education in that it breaks from the credit hour, today’s prevailing measure of student progress. Popularized by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1906 as a way to measure faculty workload and determine eligibility for pensions, the unit was never intended as a measure of student learning. And yet, it became just that.

In today’s traditional higher education model, students must accumulate a set number of credit hours—usually 120 to earn a bachelor’s degree. Students earn the same number of credits regardless of the grade they receive from their instructors, provided the grade is passing.

Competency-based education turns the traditional model on its head. Instead of awarding credits based on how much time students spend learning, this model awards credits based on whether students can prove they have mastered competencies—the skills, abilities, and knowledge required in an area of study.

To put it simply: In competency-based education, it’s not about time—it’s about what you know and are able to do.

What are the benefits of competency-based education?

By focusing on what you know rather than how much time you spend learning, competency-based education puts you in charge of your education as never before. No longer are you confined to a rigid set of courses and semester schedules. Instead of working at an instructor’s pace, studying material you may already know, competency-based education makes it possible for you to work at your pace, studying only the things you need to learn.

carla at desk2
Read how the UW Flexible Option RN to BSN program is helping Carla earn her bachelor’s degree, while working full-time and taking care of her family.

The idea is especially appealing for the millions of American adults with busy schedules who already have significant knowledge or even some college credits, but no degree. Many of these adults may need a degree to become eligible for promotions or raises, but due to work and family commitments, they simply don’t have time for a traditional education. These people need a more flexible option that allows them to earn a college degree on their own terms.

Following the U.S. Department of Education’s March 2013 endorsement of competency-based education, Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, said in a written statement: “This is a key step forward in expanding access to affordable higher education. We know many students and adult learners across the country need the flexibility to fit their education into their lives or work through a class on their own pace, and these competency-based programs offer those features.”

For returning adult learners, the competency-based Flexible Option aims to be:

  • Flexible. No classes, no commutes. No set semesters or study times. The Flexible Option lets you start when you want, the first of any month, and work toward your degree online, on your own time, when and where your schedule allows.
  • Personalized. The Flexible Option recognizes and rewards prior learning by giving you the opportunity to pass assessments using knowledge you already have. You study only the material you need to master and never spend time or money revisiting things you already know. In addition, an Academic Success Coach will work with you to customize your learning plan based on your knowledge and goals.
  • Self-paced. Take assessments whenever you are ready. Practice first to make sure. As soon as you prove mastery, you receive credit and move on, without having to wait for the next lesson or semester. Move quickly through material you know or take more time if you need it.
  • Supportive. Receive personalized mentoring and advising from an Academic Success Coach who will help you prepare for assessments and point you to learning resources you need to succeed, such as textbooks, web pages, and even free online resources offered by other universities.
  • Skills-based. You make progress by passing assessments that show you have mastered the skills essential to your degree—not by accumulating credit hours, either in the classroom or online.
  • Respected. The Flexible Option builds on the UW System’s reputation for quality and innovation. By measuring and assessing your mastery of competencies, the Flexible Option provides proof to employers that you have the skills and knowledge your field requires.
  • Affordable. Instead of paying by course or by credit, the Flexible Option lets you pay a flat rate for a subscription period of your choice. If you are highly motivated and have significant experience related to your degree, you may be able to accelerate your progress and shorten your time to graduation, saving time and money.

Is competency-based education right for you?

Although competency-based education offers returning adult learners a real opportunity to earn a college degree while balancing commitments to work and family, this innovative model is not for everyone. There are no set classes, and the pace of your learning is entirely up to you. But if you are the right kind of student—experienced, self-directed, and motivated to succeed—then competency-based programs such as the Flexible Option may be just what you’ve been waiting for.

explore competency-based degree and certificate programs from the University of Wisconsin

Find your future in flexible, self-paced programs in nursing, information systems, diagnostic imaging, business and technical communications, sales, global skills, and more. Visit our Flexible Option programs page now.

If you have questions about the competency-based UW Flexible Option, or about any of the UW degree and certificate programs available in this new format, call 1-877-895-3276 or email to speak with an enrollment adviser today.


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Learn more about this competency-based education option and why it’s a smart choice for working adults.


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