10 Questions to Help You Choose a Competency-Based Degree Program

10 Questions to Help You Choose a Competency-Based Degree Program
Beth Dumbauld

[Updated October 2015}

Considering earning a competency-based degree? Smart move.

In a competency-based degree (CBE) program, student success is measured by learning, not seat time, class attendance, or credit hours. You earn a degree by demonstrating skills and knowledge in required subject areas through a series of carefully designed courses. The advantage to this approach is straightforward - you are rewarded for hard work and prior experience.

If you are a working adult looking to accelerate your time to graduation and acquire skills that employers value, a competency-based degree program may be your best choice. But how do you know which one is right for you?

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We've compiled a list of the 10 most important questions to ask to help you choose the competency-based degree program that's right for you:

1. How many competency-based degree programs are available to students today?

According to a report by the Center of Higher Education Reform, "34 colleges have CBE programs, with at least 18 more colleges working on developing programs."

A sizable number of StraighterLine partner colleges offer competency-based degrees, including WGU, the "grand daddy" of competency-based education.

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2. Is the competency-based degree program part of C-BEN?

If accreditation is an insurance policy that protects the value of your education, then a school's membership in the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) is a policy that helps protect the integrity of your competency-based degree.

According to the group, the "Competency-Based Education Network is a group of colleges and universities working together to address shared challenges to designing, developing and scaling competency-based degree programs... Participating institutions either offer degree programs with well-defined learning outcomes and rigorous assessment or are on their way to creating them."

3. How established is the school's competency-based degree program?

While competency-based education is relatively new, Western Governor’s University (WGU), the granddaddy of CBE, was reviewed and approved by all six regional accreditors to offer competency based programs, enrolling its first students in 1999.

In 2008, StraighterLine began offering self-paced, online, tutor-supported, general education courses that were recommended for credit by the American Council on Education’s Credit Recommendation Services (ACE Credit).

When you earn your a competency-based degree from a school with an established reputation, your degree has a proven value. Since most competency-based degree programs have shorter institutional histories, start by taking a look at their established relationships with employers, alumni success rates, and the school's affiliation with C-BEN.

4. How easy is it to transfer credit into the competency-based program?

Competency based degree programs that make it easy to transfer existing credits also make it easy for you get on a direct pathway to your college degree.

All colleges with active competency-based education programs offer credit for at least some types of prior learning assessment, including StraighterLine courses. According to the Center of Higher Education Reform, "while most baccalaureate colleges require at least 30 credits to be completed at the college, some colleges have lower requirements." For example, StraighterLine partner Charter Oak State College requires students to take six credits in residency, while another StraighterLine partner, Excelsior College requires only a three-credit capstone class.

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5. Is the competency-based degree program cheaper than a traditional degree program?

The answer depends on your particular set of circumstances and the program you plan on attending. On the whole, the pricing structures of CBE tends to be significantly less expensive than traditional programs. This is particularly true if you don't have financial need, or intend on enrolling in program that is able to provide federal financial aid, and can move quickly through your program.

For example, one year of tuition and fees at a 4-year private college is $30,094, but online programs offering competency-based degrees only cost between $2,500 and $6,000 per year. A year's worth of college courses through StraighterLine is just $1299.

If you cannot complete courses at a faster pace than the traditional semester model, you may lose out on savings opportunities provided by competency-based models. Yet, there's still an opportunity to see significant cost savings if you can transfer a number of low-cost credits from other sources, such as tests for credit or online courses.

6. Is the degree program a member of the StraighterLine College Savings Network?

Thirteen members of C-BEN are also StraighterLine partner schools. Enrolling in a competency-based degree program that is also part of StraighterLine's College Savings Network is especially attractive to students looking to reduce their cost of college.

StraighterLine C-BEN partners include:

7. Is the competency degree program eligible for financial aid?

Use caution if you need to get financial aid in order to enroll in a competency-based degree program. While things are looking up for students who need financial aid, you'll need to first speak with the school's financial aid office to make sure.

According to  Insider Higher Ed, the U.S. Department of Education will allow "at least 40 colleges to experiment with competency-based education and prior learning assessment, granting them a waiver from certain rules that govern federal financial aid."

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8. Can the competency-based degree program help you reach your career goals?

Too many students load up on excessive and unnecessary credits - and end up spending too much time and money to complete their degrees. Make sure the degree program can help you reach your post graduation goals. Ask for, and review, a degree plan before you enroll. Verify student employment and placement rates - and understand the value of your degree to potential employers.

9. Are you able to try out the program?

Some colleges have introductory assessments designed to give prospective students a taste of whether CBE programs are right for them. For example, StraighterLine partner, Capella University, offers mini-courses on a regular basis. Another StraighterLine partner, WGU provides a quiz to help you find out if the school is a good fit for you. If you want to give a variety online courses try, you can get the first two lessons of a StraighterLine's most popular courses for free.

10. What type of academic, career, and technical support is available to competency-based students?

A well-staffed support team can help you get the academic support you need, when you need it - and help keep you on track for your accelerated CBE degree. Check out your online tutoring options and your access to student mentors. Don't base your decision on a program's sale pitch without ensuring that competency-based students have equal access to available career service support and opportunities.

With online courses and competency-based degree programs, you have a unique opportunity to graduate with the degree you want in less time, and for less money. Know your options, ask the right questions - and be confident that you can find a competency-based degree program that's right for you.

Ready to enroll? Get started today!

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