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Ensure Availability of Competency-Based Programs

Ensure competency-based programs for adults are available statewide.

Create Smarter

Competency-based education allows students to earn postsecondary credentials by demonstrating specific knowledge and skills related to programs of study as well as general skills, abilities and behaviors such as the ability to communicate well with a variety of audiences orally and in writing. Many such programs allow students to demonstrate knowledge and skills gained through work, the military or in a classroom as well as through direct participation in the program’s educational offerings. Progress is measured by demonstrating achievement of specific learning outcomes using various forms of assessment instead of by completing a set number of academic terms or credit hours of instruction.

Competency-based education is not new to higher education; however, there has been a recent resurgence of interest. The growth has been driven primarily by efforts to redefine the quality of higher education in terms of student learning. Competency-based education could lead to fairer results for students from all backgrounds, especially for those who are not well served by traditional instructional models. It is a more-straightforward way to plan, organize, deliver, and support student learning across all academic disciplines.

What is Competency-Based Education?

A recent brief—What is Competency-Based Education?—offers many examples of different competency-based programs, the various characteristics of such programs, including new roles for faculty, and describes the benefits to students, employers and taxpayers. Generally speaking, these programs:

  • Establish clear expectations for students in plain language about what knowledge, abilities, skills and attitudes (competencies) they will have to demonstrate to be awarded credentials in specific academic disciplines or majors.
  • Encourage student and faculty engagement and learning outside of classroom lectures and other traditional forms of academic instruction, clearly relating these learning opportunities to the expected program-level outcomes.
  • Rely on authentic, valid, and reliable assessments of learning that include both objective and performance-based tools, including research papers and real-world projects.
  • Do not necessarily follow traditional academic calendars or rely on the accumulation of student credit hours as markers of progress.
  • Allow students to progress at their own pace as they are able to demonstrate proficiency in particular areas and move on or build knowledge and acquire skills in areas they find difficult until they are able to demonstrate competencies.

States play key roles in creating the conditions for institutions to develop and expand these programs by making them available statewide, for both adults and other underserved student groups. States and institutions can adjust policies to allow credits earned in these programs to transfer to their traditional public two-year and four-year institutions.

In addition, states interested in supporting competency-based programs should also review state laws, rules and regulations for their financial aid programs to ensure that students in competency-based programs can be eligible for financial assistance. Most state financial aid programs were created for students in traditional postsecondary settings and eligibility is often tied to credit hours, grades and the physical location of the institution. State Financial Aid Programs and Competency-Based Education identifies the three types of challenges competency-based programs face concerning state financial aid: institutional eligibility requirements, student eligibility requirements and aid disbursement calendars. Sometimes these requirements are written in state statutes and require legislative adjustments. Other states allow state aid agencies, governing boards or institutions the flexibility to make eligibility determinations.

In Competency-Based Education and Federal Student Aid, Stephen Porter of North Carolina State University describes how federal policymakers are navigating many of the same challenges. He offers an analysis of why the existing federal student aid system is not conducive to competency-based education, reviews current approaches to federal funding of students in these programs and calls for experimental sites to further test how federal aid might support these programs in the future.

To ensure state aid is available to students enrolled in competency-based degree programs, states should consider thinking about ways to:

  • provide flexibility by creating bridges between credit and clock hours and competency-based units of progress;
  • adjust financial aid disbursement calendars to allow aid to flow when students start their programs and when they reach milestones;
  • encourage innovation and experimentation around the delivery of financial aid;
  • use language that is broad and flexible when creating new financial aid statutes or regulations; and
  • create opportunities for institutions to share their innovations around competency-based programs and student aid.

While competency-based education is not intended exclusively for adults, this policy focus acknowledges the need for state policy the help develop this pathway for the largely underserved adult population. Developing pathways for returning adults that honor and attach value to what they learned elsewhere is crucial to meeting postsecondary attainment goals. As adults juggle family and other expenses, competency-based programs can be much less expensive than traditional models and students can finish more quickly.

State Examples

Each of the following state examples is a policy solution crafted in response to the unique circumstances of the state in which it was formed. As a private foundation, Lumina does not support or oppose any legislation. Lumina provides educational information, nonpartisan research and analysis to advance Goal 2025.

States can partner, create or enable competency-based programs to grow and serve many more students. Statewide public systems can also create competency-based degree programs and courses to more cost-effectively meet student needs.


The Kentucky Community and Technical College System and Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education have built on the Commonwealth’s historic commitment to adults with new statewide competency-based courses and programs at the sub-baccalaureate and baccalaureate levels.  In 2007, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) developed a centrally administered online portal for offering web-based courses. Those efforts led to two different online options: Learn by Term, a traditional, online class based more on time than competency, and Learn on Demand, a competency-based model of online learning. Learn on Demand offers certificate and degree programs in areas identified by KCTCS as having the greatest workforce demand in the state. Learn on Demand programs were created by consortiums of colleges and faculty, sharing the responsibility across institutions but also building support and buy-in among institutional leaders and faculty across the state. Each program and course consists of competency-based modules and integrated assessments, with each module taking about three to eight weeks to complete. Learn on Demand is fully accredited, and students are eligible for financial aid. Led by the Council on Postsecondary Education, Kentucky’s public institutions adopted common learning outcomes, making it possible for Learn on Demand credits to transfer to other public institutions in the state. The program charges a flat rate, currently set at $147 per credit hour. While Learn on Demand required some state financial support at the start, the program has become financially self-sufficient on tuition revenue. The Council on Postsecondary Education is working with institutions and representatives from the business community to develop Commonwealth College, a competency-based baccalaureate degree pathway that builds on the Learn on Demand model. The target launch date is 2015.


The University of Maryland University College (UMUC) is part of the University System of Maryland and primarily serves working adults, offering both baccalaureate and post-baccalaureate degrees through online and traditional courses. In 2011, UMUC began to redesign its undergraduate programs to make them based on competencies and began similar efforts with graduate programs in 2013. UMUC is participating in the Next Generation Learning Challenges Breakthrough Models Incubator and is a member of the Competency-Based Education Network.

In 2014, the Maryland Higher Education Commission adopted revised regulations to allow institutions to award competency-based credit, establish the process for approval of competency-based programs and reporting requirements, enumerate approved assessments of competency, and provide institutions more flexibility around the development of competency-based degree programs. The commission removed the existing caps on credits awarded for prior learning that could count toward a degree. Previously, no more than half the credits required for a degree could be earned through assessment of prior learning. The revised regulations were published and took effect in July 2014.


In 2013, Texas lawmakers enacted legislation that created the Texas Fast Start Program, a joint effort of the Texas Workforce Commission and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) that identifies and develops methods to support competency-based, rapid-deployment education delivery models in public colleges and technical institutes. The models and degree programs are focused on fields and occupations that are in high demand.

In 2014, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) launched the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Program, which is designed to provide a lower-cost, competency-based option for adult learners. The program offers a Bachelor of Applied Sciences degree with an emphasis in Organization Leadership that was developed with a grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges and is a partnership between the THECB, South Texas College, Texas A&M University-Commerce, and the College for All Texans Foundation. The program focuses on low-income and adult students and is offered in seven-week terms year round. Classes are offered through traditional academic instruction and online, and students earn credits by demonstrating competency.

Through a 2011 executive order, Texas created a partnership with Western Governors University to create another competency-based education option for adults in the state (see below).

Western Governors University

Western Governors University is an online, nonprofit, private, competency-based university founded by the governors of 19 states. Since first accepting students in 1999, WGU has grown to become a national university serving more than 43,400 students from all 50 states. Most students are adults working full-time or part-time while earning a college degree. WGU offers fully accredited bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in teacher education, business, information technology and health professions through online, competency-based, self-paced courses and assessments. Councils of WGU faculty and outside experts determine competencies, guide program development and determine how to assess competencies for each program. Each student is assigned a mentor who evaluates a student’s background and work experience to determine existing competencies and develops a personalized academic plan for completing a degree. WGU charges students a flat rate of about $3,000 every six months. A degree program typically takes about 28 to 36 months to complete. Students are eligible for federal student financial aid and, in a limited number of states, for state need-based aid.

Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas and Washington partnered with WGU to create a state-approved, online, competency-based option for their students. In Indiana, Missouri and Texas, the governor signed an executive order establishing the state-branded WGU.  Tennessee and Washington lawmakers created their state WGU through legislative action.  Each has its own approach to financial aid. WGU Texas students are not eligible for state aid. Indiana’s statutory language was flexible enough that the Indiana Commission for Higher Education and WGU were able to create an equivalency for grade point average to meet the eligibility requirements. Washington revised its statute to expand the definition of eligible institutions. The greatest challenge for Missouri, Texas and Washington proved to be the requirement that an institution be located within the state. Missouri was able to include language in the executive order establishing WGU Missouri that eliminated the barrier. Tennessee’s legislation included an exemption for WGU Tennessee’s physical location, and Washington amended its statute to grant a “special recognition.”

WGU Indiana

In 2010, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels signed an executive order creating WGU Indiana, specifically to help serve the state’s working adults who had some college credits but no degree. Foundations provided about $1.75 million in startup support. Students are eligible for state financial aid to help cover tuition costs. WGU Indiana is financially self-sufficient and receives no state financial support. Enrollment has grown rapidly from about 260 students in June 2010 to more than 3,446 by the end of 2013.


The University of Wisconsin System and UW-Extension are partnering to offer adult students the UW Flexible Option, which allows students to earn college credit by demonstrating knowledge they have acquired through coursework, military training, on-the-job training, and other learning experiences, including self-paced online learning. Students make progress toward a degree by passing a series of assessments that demonstrate mastery of required knowledge and skills. Each student works with an Academic Success Coach to develop a learning plan and timeline. Students pay a flat rate for each three month period and can earn as many competencies and assessments as they can during that period.

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