Disrupting The Credit Hour with Competency-Based Education

Burck Smith

This article originally appeared on the SkilledUp Thought Leadership blog.

Even if you don’t follow higher education, you may have heard about competency-based education (CBE) — especially if you are an adult learner seeking a college degree. Programs using this model are often attractive because students can move at their own pace, and CBE can be more affordable than traditional programs.

Another advantage is that the CBE model is disrupting outdated mechanisms for accreditation, forcing everyone in higher ed to think in terms of proficiency rather than seat time. And the innovations that result are helping to serve a student body that includes an increasing number of non-traditional learners.

What is competency-based education (CBE)?

Though the category of CBE (also called competency-based learning or CBL) was formally created in the spring of 2013 by the U.S. Department of Education, it has been around for a long, long time in the form of correspondence courses, test-prep and self-paced education provided by colleges. However, its migration to the Internet was pioneered by Western Governors University (WGU) and StraighterLine in the early and mid 2000’s.

What are competency-based programs?

CBE programs:

  • are usually self-paced and online,
  • provide academic tutors and mentors,
  • rely on the direct assessment of student competency or proficiency to
    award college credit, and
  • have “all you can eat” or subscription pricing models.

"CBE programs are most appealing to working adult students and other
non-traditional students who value convenience and low-prices." 


Adult students are also less interested in the trappings of a traditional college experience like athletics and dormitories.

Tuition assistance (also called tuition reimbursement) available from many employers may be used to pay for ACE Credit recommended courses and accredited colleges.

CBE programs are appealing to non-traditional students who value convenience and low-prices.

The role of seat time in college accreditation

When the U.S. federal government created financial aid programs in the 1950’s, accrediting agencies needed to create a “unit of learning” that could be reported, transferred and funded. Thus, the concept of the “credit hour” was born. When practically all college education occurred on campus in a classroom, students had no choice but to attend college in semester formats where all courses were roughly equivalent to a certain amount of time sitting in a seat.

The credit hour became a unit of learning (i.e. a 3-credit course) that was tied to the number of expected hours studying and doing classwork – whether or not any individual actually spent more or less time. This worked reasonably well so long as education stayed within the confines of a campus and classroom.

Distance education — tectonic rumblings

Then, with the Internet came online education, letting learning jump the banks of the classroom and campus. The advent of online courses freed students — particularly working adults− from the commuting and seat time requirements of a traditional class. Distance education has two defining features:

  • A course can be taken and provided from anywhere by anyone at any time.
  • It requires none of the expensive buildings and grounds associated with most colleges.

This creates several problems with the credit hour and the business of higher education:

1 - Because students are not tied to the speed of a class, they can move as fast or as slow as they want. The idea of a “credit-hour” no longer makes sense. It makes more sense to evaluate students on what they know, rather than how long they spent learning it. By changing the unit, new educational models can be incorporated into the federal financial aid system.

2 - Lower cost of delivery creates the potential for lower prices for students. Yet, most colleges are accustomed to setting prices for online course that are the same or higher than the prices of face-to-face courses.  Indeed, over 93% of colleges do this. Under the credit hour model, most colleges have been reluctant to build lower-priced programs for fear of losing the revenue from their existing online programs.

3 - Because only colleges could offer college credit, no new providers could easily offer lower-priced online courses that would appeal to students. For the last 15 years, credit-bearing online education has been priced and offered like face-to-face courses.


"It makes more sense to evaluate students on what they know,
rather than how long they spent learning it." 


 College credit without the college

In the early and mid 2000’s, WGU and StraighterLine pointed out just how convenient and affordable online learning should be. Western Governor’s University — the granddaddy of competency-based education programs — was the first accredited college to slash prices. To do this, it used the political power of a consortium of governors (hence Western Governors) to get permission from all six regional accreditors to align competencies to credit hours.

At StraighterLine, we decided in 2008 to ignore traditional accreditation. Instead, we received a college credit recommendation from the American Council on Education’s Credit Recommendation (ACE Credit) and created credit transfer relationships with most adult serving colleges. This demonstrated that when online, you don’t need to be a college to offer college credit.

Now it has a name — competency-based education 

New lower-priced course and credit delivery options are emerging at a rapid pace, especially since the Department of Education allowed such programs to be accredited in the spring of 2013. Like the models validated earlier by WGU and StraighterLine, most CBE programs are self-paced and online, provide academic tutors and mentors, directly assess students to award college credit and have “all you can eat” or subscription pricing models.


"New lower-priced course and credit delivery options
emerging at a rapid pace."


As interest in CBE has grown, the Lumina Foundation created the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) in the spring of 2014 and also funded the CBE Jump Start technical assistance project for programs. C-BEN is comprised of a group of 18 colleges either offering or planning to offer CBE. These institutions are:

  • Antioch University
  • Argosy University
  • Brandman University
  • Broward College
  • Capella University’s Flex Path
  • Charter Oak State College
  • City University of Seattle
  • Depaul University
  • Excelsior College
  • Lipscomb University
  • Salt Lake Community College
  • Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America
  • Northern Arizona University
  • University of Maine at Presque Isle
  • University of Maryland University College
  • Westminster College
  • University of Wisconsin Flexible Option

These programs cost between about $2,500 and $6,000 per year. Almost all competency-based programs will accept ACE Credit recommended courses in transfer. Most of the Lumina C-BEN colleges are also StraighterLine partners — allowing the credit from our ultra-affordable general education courses to transfer to these partners.

What’s next?

Hundreds of colleges have expressed interest to the Department of Education in building CBE programs. But it remains to be seen how CBE programs impact the traditional online and face-to-face programs of a college.

  • Will CBE be perceived differently by employers?
  • Will colleges be willing to forego the profits of their existing online programs?
  • Can hundreds of CBE programs survive?
  • How will CBE programs validate each other’s competencies and proficiencies?

While these are all valid concerns, the arrival of CBE as a recognized category of accreditation does pave the way for more affordable online education and a greater variety of education options for students.

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One thought on “Disrupting The Credit Hour with Competency-Based Education”

  • Katie Bernath

    No doubt, online competency-based education at a lower cost can be a boon to working professionals, people who have tight schedules or people who cannot afford higher tuition costs. However, certain education requires practical trainings or hands-on experience, and not all distance learning provider’s offer such trainings. In such cases, students have to arrange their own practical trainings for earning skills. If distance learning providers and colleges give a thought to this problem and find an answer, then there will be no match for online education and online competency-based education.