Going to college and getting a degree used to be equal to having greater chances at a better life. But life doesn’t come with any guarantees. The economy is always shifting, so long-term plans like pursuing a college degree need more flexibility than ever.

The 37 or so millions of American adults with some college but no degree definitely know what I’m talking about. Graduating higher education while having a full-time job and/or a family seems almost impossible for too many students.

The traditional education model makes no compromises: you’re either all in, or you’re not.

Students need to attend certain courses at certain times and be assessed in certain ways. All these “certains” are established by the higher education institution and all aspects are convenient for it and its faculty. Students have almost no say in making these arrangements.

But being a spouse, raising a child and having a job in order to sustain that family — and pay for the university tuition — are not frivolous things that can be easily compromised either. That’s why so many adult students seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to pursue higher education while having work and family commitments.

And when something is imperative to be compromised, that something is too often the college degree.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. Competency-based education might be the best solution in these circumstances. On top of this, more and more universities offer competency-based learning programs to address the needs of all their students.

What is competency-based learning?

If we consider the actual terms, educators refer to the same idea while using more than one synonymous phrase: competency-/proficiency-/mastery-/outcome-/performance-/standards-based learning/education/instruction.

No matter the exact words, competency-based learning is different than traditional education through a number of defining aspects. The most important one is that the learner and the learner’s need are at the core of everything.

Time is not the best measurement for learning

The college degree is directly based on what the student actually knows, and not on how much time it took them to learn something.

The credit-hour was never meant to become the standard measurement of higher education, yet everyone in the system knows that it is exactly that. Well, students following a competency-based learning program are not tied to credit-hours. They can earn the needed credits in half the time — or even less — than what the university considers necessary for the average student.

They can achieve this because they don’t have to take some classes or parts of classes that teach skills they already master.

A competency-based learning program is made up of a number of independent learning modules which are part of a larger learning goal. The students take up one module at a time.

If their background knowledge or work experience helps them navigate more easily through some learning modules, they can focus only on those modules they can’t quite master yet, and finish the program sooner.

It’s all about mastery

Another flaw of the credit-hour is that it doesn’t prove mastery.

Students earn the same number of credits as long as they get a passing grade. But we all know there can be a big difference between a D and an A+ student. That difference, when translated into actual knowledge, means that some students are allowed to go on to more advanced-level classes even though they don’t master everything they should in order to ace those classes.

A small knowledge gap will lead to more, bigger knowledge gaps. And when these gaps become overwhelming, the student will eventually drop his/her studies.

In a competency-based learning system this simply doesn’t happen. There are no grades. Students can move on to the next learning module only after they prove mastery of the current one. Not a moment sooner.

Knowledge gaps have no place here.

Students are offered the most relevant and diverse learning materials, they get specialized support from teachers, and they are not pressured by time. Proving mastery is entirely up to them.

Flexibility is key

Competency-based learning allows for the biggest degree of flexibility for students.

They are the ones who set their learning pace: when they learn, where they learn, how much they learn in a session, or how fast they go through a learning module.

Students also set when exactly their learning is assessed. If they know they haven’t reached mastery yet, they don’t have to take an exam.

This all means that they can go to work, they can have busy weekends with personal events and family commitments, and go to an exam only when they know they’ll pass it. They can’t possibly be unprepared for an exam if they are the ones to set the exam date.

When working students can take ownership over so many aspects of their learning process they are more likely to get the degree they are studying for.

But wait! There’s more

Competency-based learning seems like the ultimately student-centered education.

It surely has the potential to engage all those millions of some-college-no-degree adults and support them in getting that degree and improving their chances to a better life. What’s more, it can prevent millions of other students that are still in the system but seriously consider compromising their degree.

Competency-based learning puts so much more control into the hands of the learner it seems too good to be true. In a future post I’ll dive into more advantages of the competency-based education, but also into the challenges those who want to implement it have to overcome. So keep an eye on the NEO Blog!

Author: Livia M

Livia is one of the online voices of NEO by CYPHER LEARNING. She writes about education technology for K-12 and higher ed, gamification, BYOD, as well as other ed-tech subjects.