Exploring Competency-Based Online Colleges: A Guide for Students

Competency-based education and online learning have become buzzwords in recent years as colleges scramble to keep up with the changing demands of today’s workforce. Competency-based online colleges have been popping up all around the country, offering a flexible and affordable alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar institutions. These colleges allow students to progress through their degree programs by demonstrating that they have mastered specific skills, rather than simply accumulating a certain number of course credits.

The beauty of competency-based education is that it allows working adults and other non-traditional students to earn a degree at their own pace. Instead of forcing students to fit into a semester-based schedule, competency-based online colleges allow students to move at their own speed, accelerating through material that comes easily to them and spending more time on topics that require more attention. This is particularly beneficial for students who are working full-time or have other family obligations, as they can complete their coursework whenever they have time and progress through their degree programs based on their own individual strengths and weaknesses.

competency based online colleges

What Are Competency Based Online Colleges?

Competency based online colleges emphasize learning outcomes, rather than seat time or credit hours.

Benefits of Competency Based Online Colleges

Competency based online colleges allow students to learn at their own pace, demonstrate mastery of skills, and potentially accelerate degree completion.


Competency-based education is an innovative approach to learning that emphasizes mastery of skills and knowledge rather than credit hours or time spent in the classroom. This model of education is becoming increasingly popular in online colleges, offering students the opportunity to learn at their own pace, on their own time, and often at a lower cost than traditional brick-and-mortar institutions. This article will explore the benefits and challenges of competency-based online colleges and identify some of the best programs available today.

Benefits of Competency-Based Education

One of the primary benefits of competency-based education is that it is designed around the needs and goals of the individual learner. Rather than following a predetermined course of study, students are able to focus on the areas where they need the most support. This allows them to accelerate the pace of their learning and move on to more advanced topics as quickly as they are able. Additionally, competency-based education is often self-paced, which can be ideal for learners who are balancing work, family, and other commitments.

Another key advantage of competency-based education is that it is often less expensive than traditional degree programs. Because students are not required to take a full course load each semester, they can reduce the cost of tuition by taking fewer classes at a time. Additionally, because students can “test out” of competencies they have already mastered, they can save time and money by skipping over topics they already understand.

Finally, competency-based education can be an excellent fit for adult learners who are seeking to enhance their skills or change careers. These learners may have a wealth of experience and knowledge, but lack a formal degree or certification. Competency-based education programs can help these learners build on their existing knowledge and gain the skills needed to succeed in their chosen field.

Challenges of Competency-Based Education

Despite its many benefits, competency-based education is not without its challenges. One of the primary challenges of this approach is that it requires a significant amount of self-direction and motivation. Students must be willing and able to take responsibility for their own learning, setting goals, and developing strategies to achieve them. Additionally, because the curriculum is not predetermined, students may struggle to stay on track or identify the competencies they need to master in order to achieve their goals.

Another challenge of competency-based education is that it can be difficult to develop and assess competencies in a meaningful way. Creating effective assessments that accurately measure learning outcomes requires significant expertise and investment in resources. Additionally, because students are often able to “test out” of competencies they have already mastered, it can be challenging for instructors to accurately evaluate student progress and provide meaningful feedback.

Best Competency-Based Online Colleges

There are a growing number of online colleges offering competency-based programs at the undergraduate and graduate level. Some of the best programs available today include:

Western Governors University

Western Governors University (WGU) is a nonprofit, online university that offers competency-based programs in a variety of fields, including business, education, IT, and healthcare. Students at WGU can earn a degree or certificate at their own pace, with most completing their program in two to three years.

Capella University

Capella University is a regionally accredited, online university that offers competency-based programs in a variety of fields, including business, counseling, education, healthcare, and IT. Capella uses a unique “FlexPath” model, which allows students to complete their degree on their own schedule, with no fixed course dates or deadlines.

University of Wisconsin System

The University of Wisconsin System offers competency-based programs that allow students to earn credit for prior learning and work experience. These programs are ideal for adult learners seeking to enhance their skills or change careers, with options available in fields such as business, IT, education, and healthcare.


Competency-based education is an innovative approach to learning that offers many benefits, including flexibility, affordability, and customization. However, this approach also presents unique challenges, such as developing effective assessments and ensuring student motivation and direction. Despite these challenges, there are many excellent competency-based online colleges available today, offering students the opportunity to achieve their goals and succeed in their chosen field.


Question 1: What is a competency-based approach to learning?

A competency-based approach to learning means that the focus is on what you can do, not just what you know. The goal is to develop and demonstrate specific skills and abilities, rather than just accumulate knowledge. Competency-based education is designed to help students master specific competencies, or skills, that are identified and defined by employers, industry experts, or other experts in a field.

Question 2: What are the advantages of competency-based education?

Competency-based education offers several advantages over traditional, lecture-based education. For one, it is more flexible, allowing students to progress at their own pace and demonstrating mastery of a competency when they’re ready. It also provides a more personalized approach, with a focus on each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, students in a competency-based program often gain more practical, real-world experience, since the focus is on skills that are directly applicable to the workplace.

Question 3: How do competency-based online colleges work?

Competency-based online colleges work by providing students with a set of competencies to master, along with the resources and support needed to do so. These competencies are broken down into smaller learning units, which are organized into modules or courses. Students can then work through these units at their own pace, demonstrating mastery of each competency as they go. This allows students to progress through the program quickly if they already have experience with certain competencies, while giving them more time to work on others that may be more challenging.

Question 4: Is a competency-based online college right for me?

A competency-based online college may be a good choice for you if you’re a self-directed learner who prefers a flexible, personalized approach to education. It may also be a good fit if you’re looking for a more practical, skills-based education that is directly applicable to the workplace.

Question 5: How do I know if a competency-based online college is accredited?

Like traditional colleges and universities, competency-based online colleges should be accredited by a recognized accrediting agency. You can check if a school is accredited by visiting the website of the accrediting agency and searching for the school.

Question 6: How long does it take to earn a degree from a competency-based online college?

The amount of time it takes to earn a degree from a competency-based online college will vary depending on your individual pace and the requirements of the program. Some programs may allow students to work at an accelerated pace, while others may require a certain amount of time spent on coursework in order to demonstrate mastery of a competency.

Question 7: Can I transfer credits earned at a traditional college to a competency-based online college?

It depends on the individual school and program. Some competency-based online colleges may allow transfer credits, while others may require students to complete all courses and competencies within their program.

Question 8: Can I get financial aid for a competency-based online college?

Yes, if the school is accredited and participates in federal financial aid programs. You will need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine your eligibility for federal aid.

Question 9: What types of degrees can I earn from a competency-based online college?

Competency-based online colleges offer a variety of degree and certificate programs, ranging from associate’s degrees to master’s degrees. The types of degrees available will vary depending on the school and program.

Question 10: What kinds of careers can I pursue with a degree from a competency-based online college?

The types of careers you can pursue with a degree from a competency-based online college will depend on the specific program and degree you earn. However, many competency-based programs are designed to prepare students for careers in fields such as healthcare, business, education, and technology.

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