Competency-based educational programs that allow students to demonstrate knowledge and mastery of workplace skills at their own pace can be a sensible way for experienced workers to advance their careers.
However, the field of competency-based education, or CBE, is still growing and only beginning to enter the mainstream of online and hybrid education, experts say. Programs in many fields are still in their nascent stages, they add, and some workers may not know their profession is receptive to credentials earned through these types of programs, or understand why a competency-based approach makes sense for their career prospects.
The advantage of competency-based education is that it can save time and money. Students may complete projects, tests or other exercises to show what they already know, so they can progress immediately to gaining new skills in the courses they take.
Potential students can examine these five signs to determine if such a program might be appropriate in their field.
[Learn about the perks of competency-based learning for online students.]
1. There’s a shortage of qualified advanced-level employees. Some competency-based programs are created in response to an industry need to fill a surplus of positions that require a higher level of education, experts say.
“I think that’s where a lot of CBE is zeroing in,” says John Baker, CEO of Desire2Learn, a company that specializes in providing learning management services to competency-based programs. “To really re-engage the workforce that would normally choose to not go back to the university or college and really give them the opportunity to fill these job shortages that we’re seeing.”
For example, competency-based teacher education programs have emerged to help paraprofessionals in education or experienced professionals in science, technology, engineering and math fields transition to fill teacher needs quickly, says Allison Barber, chancellor of the competency-based Western Governors University—Indiana.
2. You’re in a field where job descriptions change quickly. Competency-based programs can be practical for professions where the job description itself changes quickly over time, says Aric Krause, dean of the graduate school at the University of Maryland University College.
Because most students in competency-based programs will already have work experience, they won’t need much time to demonstrate the practical skills of their trade that are likely to evolve anyway. Instead, they can focus on mastering critical thinking processes that will be required now and decades down the line, in fields such as cybersecurity or computer science.
[Think about these four things before enrolling in a competency-based program.]
“The typical response I get from employers is, ‘If you deliver us graduates who can problem-solve and think and analyze, then we can teach them the context for today, and as it is evolving we can keep them up to speed,’” Krause says.
3. Earning certifications allows you to advance incrementally without a degree. In information technology and other skilled trades, students may be able to advance at work once they earn a professional certification, even if they do so a short way into their progress on a more advanced degree.
In these cases, a competency-based program can be advantageous, says Annie Myers, the associate dean of computer science and engineering at Broward College in Florida. If students break from their studies to focus on their new position, they can return later, quickly prove the competencies they previously learned and resume their progress.
“In IT, as soon as a student gets a certification, an industry certification and a little bit of experience with internships as well, they get hired,” Myers says. “Eventually, they do come back.”
4. There’s a sudden industrywide demand for a more advanced credential. In some fields, competency-based education programs have emerged in response to a sudden shift in the credentials that are deemed necessary.
For example, Capella University has unveiled a competency-based nursing program designed specifically to help registered nurses earn bachelor’s degrees at their own pace. The program follows a call in 2010 from the Institute of Medicine to have 80 percent of nurses possess a Bachelor of Science in Nursing by 2020.
Capella’s program allows nurses with more experience to quickly demonstrate and receive credit for the skills they possess and move on to more advanced ones. The program might have emerged earlier, says Patrick Robinson, dean of Capella’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences, but industry accreditors first had to approve a more streamlined process.
There were periods where nurses with associates degrees had to retake all of their courses, but that’s changed over the course of a decade, Robinson says. “So really, we’ve reached that pinnacle now where Capella has a program.”