As demand grows for alternatives to the traditional model of earning a university degree based on coursework, a new model where universities grant degrees based on skills competencies is gaining momentum and credibility.

What’s changing?

The education industry is under increasing pressure to prove its relevancy, provide value and meet the needs of students, employers and industry.  Discussion of the need for innovation in higher education is increasing.  One of the challenges of degree programs is finding the balance between cost, time and quality.

…no credits and no actual courses need be completed at the university issuing the degree.

Traditionally earning a college degree is a combination of credits, classes and tuition.  But not any more.  A newer model is gaining popularity- one which doesn’t require credits, or courses- just competencies.  Through a series of competency based assessments, if a student can meet the degree requirements, the university will issue a degree.  Knowledge can be acquired from anywhere- no credits and no actual courses need be completed at the university issuing the degree.

Since 1997, Western Governors University in the US has been issuing competency based degrees earned online.  Thomas Edison in New Jersey, Charter Oak State College in Connecticut and private, non-profit Excelsior College in New York now offer similar programs.

Recently the University of Wisconsin in the USA, has announced their intention to begin offering competency based degrees in the autumn of 2013 under a “Flexible Program Option”.  There will be no difference between the degree issued through a competency based degree and one earned through the more traditional route of attending classes on campus.  For both students and employers this is welcome news- the quality of the degrees will be equivalent.

Technology is making it easier to make assessment tasks more complex, detect cheating and provide more interactive learning options for students.  All of which add to the credibility of competency based degree programs.

Why is it important?

Many believe the higher education industry is entering a crisis, in need of reinvention to more closely align their product offering to the needs of students and employers.

Competency based degrees provide a number of benefits:

  • Reduce the time and cost to complete a university degree.
  • Recognise skills and knowledge of experienced workers.
  • Provides flexibility in learning options including alternatives to classroom based learning which is not well suited to everyone.
  • Recognises non-academic skills providers as legitimate sources to acquire knowledge.  This may create additional opportunities for training, apprenticeships, employer training programs and industry certifications programs.
  • Provide global labour market flexibility allowing foreign educated workers to quickly gain locally recognised university credentials.
  • Create opportunities for organisations specialising in assessment and competencies to design and provide testing.
  • Encourage lifelong learning and facilitate career changers which will only continue to grow in importance as people live and work longer.
  • Provide universities with a flexible business model not dependent on student numbers, physical classrooms and professors.

Competency based degrees may be the answer to the needs of students, employers and universities.

By Elizabeth Rudd

About the author

Elizabeth has a strong background assisting clients to navigate the often conflicting signals in their external environments and find innovative opportunities . As a strategic foresight consultant at FutureNous she has assisted organisation to explore the future to find new products, alter their business model, find expansion opportunities and build their resilience. Her experience spans many industries including technology, mining, utilities, healthcare, non-profits, government, media and telecommunications, and many others. Elizabeth also works with Shaping Tomorrow writing Trend Alerts and more in-depth reports exploring the impact of long term (macro) trends.