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Is Competency-Based Education Right for You?

Tal Leeds

Competency-based education focuses on ability, not abstractions. This style of education isn’t organized around the number of classes you’ve taken, but on what you know how to do. Whether you’ve worked in your field already or just studied it on your own, there’s no need to spend time on things you’ve already mastered. Competency-based education gives you credit for what you know, so you can focus on what you don’t.

What is Competency?

The purpose of competency-based education is to measure and advance your individual skill level, or competency. Competency refers to the knowledge and abilities you’re expected to master for your degree program.

Any degree program you take will have a set of stated learning goals. Usually, those are focused on theoretical understanding. With CBE, the focus is more practical. In this type of program, you “show what you know, and learn what you don’t.”

Concrete Skills vs. Abstract Concepts

Let’s compare CBE to a traditional course. Both classes use written, oral, or multiple-choice exams to measure your progress toward the learning goals.

The difference is that the traditional class surveys the class topic, and might not focus on skills. In these courses, your grade is roughly the percentage of that survey you retain. For example, a grade of 80% indicates roughly 80% retention of the course’s material.

The competency-based education class uses a different organizational method. It’s not arranged around a topic, but a skill tree. In these courses, you learn one foundational skill at a time, building toward a larger, more complex goal of competency.

How Does Competency-Based Education Work?

CBE schools use assessments to determine how fast you should be learning. As soon as you’ve mastered one skill, you can move on to the next. There are two types of assessment.

Objective Assessments

Objective assessments are multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank exams, which are proctored and timed. (Schools that offer online CBE may provide webcams to prevent cheating.) These tests measure your grasp of the facts and figures related to your subject.

Performance Assessments

Performance assessments involve presentations, papers, or other projects to show what you know. An assessor reviews your performance and determines if you’re ready to advance.

Pricing Structure

Since competency-based education is self-paced, the programs are priced differently than typical college courses. Instead of charging by unit, CBE usually follows an “all-you-can-learn” subscription model. This means you pay for access to the materials for a defined amount of time, like 6 months. Within this period, you advance along the skill tree as fast as you want.

With this pricing model, the cost of your education is not fixed. This encourages faster learning and lets students complete their studies in less time. It also punishes procrastinators. If you take a long time to finish, you may end up spending more.

Getting the Support You Need

In a self-directed course of study, it’s important to know which resources are available, so you can get help if you find yourself struggling on a particular topic. CBE students don’t always have access to a professor, so they may turn to tutors or academic advisors for help. Each program has different offerings, so be sure to ask around.

Is CBE Right for You?

Self-Direction. If you like studying on your own, at your own pace, competency-based education may be the program for you. But if you do better as part of a group, or if you need more attention from your professors, you may have trouble with CBE.

Thoroughness. Another question is how well you need to know your topic. One advantage of competency-based education is its thoroughness. Since you can’t move on until you’ve mastered what you’re working on, your competency is more complete. This is great if you’re studying a skill with extensive safety procedures, for example. It’s a downside if all you want is a general overview.

Cost. As mentioned above, competency-based education costs more for those who take longer. Before signing up, you should be pretty sure you’re going to be able to focus on your studies.

Transferability. In the CBE format, credits you’ve earned in previous classes might not transfer in. The reverse is also true: if you leave part-way through your program, your CBE credits might not transfer out. Anyone who starts a competency-based education program should be prepared to see it through; otherwise, you could end up wasting a lot of time and money.

Graduate Programs. Competency-based education isn’t a good choice for students seeking acceptance into a competitive graduate program, because its grading system is based on mastery, which is the equivalent of the letter grade B, or 80%. If you complete the program successfully, your GPA will be a 3.0. For this reason, the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor warns that their CBE program isn’t meant for students who need a competitive GPA.

More About Abound: We’re here to help. Abound: Grad School narrows down your options and gets you in touch with schools that we can confirm are Accessible, Affordable, Accelerated, and Advanced. Take a look at the schools we trust and find the program that works for you.


More Helpful Resources:

Should I Enroll as a Part-Time or Full-Time Student

Getting College Credit for Life Experience You Already Have

The Nightmare of Fake Degrees

How to Find the Right Graduate School

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