Competency-Based Degrees and Programs

Discover the unique benefits of competency-based degrees and programs. And learn more about flexible learning and skill mastery.
portrait of Kathleen Curtis
Kathleen Curtis
Read Full Bio

Contributing Writer

Updated on April 22, 2024
Edited by
portrait of Tyler Epps
Tyler Epps
Read Full Bio

Editor & Writer

Tyler Epps is an editor for BestColleges. He writes and edits content about higher education, specializing in degree planning and college rankings. He is passionate about helping students prepare for college and navigate their educational journey. He...
Learn more about our editorial process is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Turn Your Dreams Into Reality

Take our quiz and we'll do the homework for you! Compare your school matches and apply to your top choice today.

In today's rapidly evolving educational landscape, competency-based programs have emerged as a dynamic alternative to the traditional higher education structure.

As industries demand practical skills, flexible learning options like competency-based programs address these needs by focusing on mastery rather than time spent in the classroom. These programs also offer a fast way to earn college credit.

Continue reading as we introduce competency-based degrees, spotlight several of the top programs, and explain why these flexible and affordable college options might be a solid choice for you.

Featured Online Bachelor's Programs

What Is a Competency-Based Degree?

Competency-based degrees and programs focus on assessing your mastery of specific skills and knowledge rather than relying solely on traditional credit hours and class structure.

In these programs, you progress at your own pace and move through the curriculum as you demonstrate proficiency in various predetermined areas. Simply put, the quicker you master a subject, the quicker you can complete course requirements.

These programs often utilize real-world projects, assessments, and personalized learning pathways. Competency-based degrees are ideal for self-directed learners and experienced adult students, allowing you to showcase existing skills and accelerate through familiar material.

5 Competency-Based Colleges and Universities

Now that you're familiar with competency-based programs, where can you find one? Read on as we spotlight three top competency-based programs and what they can offer you.

Western Governors University

Established in 1997, Western Governors University is a private institution that's not only at the forefront of online learning but is also a leader in providing competency-based programming. WGU structures its programs with predefined competencies aligned with industry needs, and you progress through coursework while receiving personalized support from mentors.

With well over 150,000 enrolled students, WGU offers online bachelor's, master's, and post-master's certificate programs. Some of the school's most popular majors include nursing, business, and education.

Competency-based degree programs:

  • Business management
  • Education
  • Information technology
  • Accounting

Southern New Hampshire University

Long known for its deep catalog of online degrees, Southern New Hampshire University features various competency-based programs where you can advance based on mastering skills rather than time spent. The university structures its programs around a clearly defined and extensive list of competencies.

In addition to course requirements, you receive guidance from coaches and faculty mentors, accelerating through the material you grasp quickly. SNHU offers a range of competency-based degrees, including business, communications, healthcare, and IT.

Competency-based degree programs:

  • Communications
  • Business administration
  • Healthcare management
  • Information technology

Purdue University Global

Established in 2018 as part of Indiana's Purdue University system, Purdue University Global is a public online institution that serves over 40,000 online learners. Purdue Global offers competency-based, accelerated degrees that emphasize skill mastery. Programs are designed with clearly defined benchmarks aligned with professional standards.

In addition to quality student services, Purdue Global emphasizes the value of personalized support from mentors in successful online learning. Purdue Global offers both graduate and undergraduate options in fields spanning from cybersecurity to nursing.

Competency-based degree programs:

  • Business administration
  • Criminal justice
  • Healthcare administration
  • Nursing (RN-to-BSN)

Walden University

Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Walden University is a private, for-profit institution that offers a sizeable list of online, competency-based degrees. By focusing on measurable proficiencies aligned with industry demands, Walden strives to ensure readiness for professional success.

Walden's structured programs integrate personalized mentorship with self-paced learning, allowing you to demonstrate expertise through various assessments and real-world projects. Walden's competency-based offerings — or Tempo Learning — span diverse academic areas such as education, nursing, public health, and management.

Competency-based degree programs:

  • Early childhood studies
  • Healthcare management
  • Health studies
  • Criminal justice

University of Phoenix

The University of Phoenix is a private, for-profit institution that offers competency-based degrees that prioritize practical skills for real-world application. UoPx structures programs around industry-relevant competencies and includes both graduate and undergraduate degrees.

With a focus on personalized guidance with a faculty mentor and flexible pacing, you can complete four courses every 16 weeks. In addition to maximizing flexibility, UoPX's competency-based program costs less than traditional programs.

Competency-based degree programs:

  • Business administration
  • Health administration
  • Information systems
  • Nursing (RN-to-BSN)

How Does Competency-Based Learning Work?

Competency-based learning focuses on mastering specific skills and knowledge rather than on adhering to traditional timeframes. You'll progress through courses by demonstrating competency in predetermined areas through assessments, projects, and exams.

Additionally, you'll have the flexibility to move at your own pace, accelerating through the material as you demonstrate proficiency. Once you prove competency, you accumulate credits toward a degree. This learner-centric approach allows you to tailor your learning experience and earn a degree based on demonstrated capabilities.

Competency-Based Programs vs. Traditional Four-Year Programs

Competency-based programs are typically quick, flexible, and affordable, but are they right for you? Check out the table below to compare and contrast competency-based and traditional programs.

Competency-Based Programs vs. Traditional Four-Year Programs
Factor Competency-Based Program Traditional Program
Duration Typically one year or less Typically four years (full-time)
Grading System Typically pass/fail (May vary by school) Traditional letter grades
Learning Format Self-paced online (Asynchronous) Instrucutor-led classroom (Synchronous)
Term Structure Typically three- to six-month terms (May vary by school) Semester-long terms
Course Structure As many courses as you're able to demonstrate mastery in per term Typically 4-5 classes per semester (12+ credits for full-time students)
Tuition Structure Typically per-term (May vary by school) Per-credit
Earning Credits Competency assessments on your own terms and pace A passing grade for a semester-long course

The Benefits of Competency-Based Degrees

Competency-based degrees boast their own unique advantages, including affordability and flexibility, all at an accelerated pace. Keep reading to see how a competency-based degree can benefit you.

Added Flexibility

Competency-based degrees offer maximum flexibility compared to traditional programs, enabling you to self-pace when you come across new material and accelerate through familiar material.

These degrees often utilize online platforms, promoting remote access and personalized study plans. This flexibility caters to diverse learning styles while accommodating the responsibilities of work and home, thus expanding access to higher education.

Faster Completion Time

Competency-based programs encourage accelerated academic progression due to a curriculum that prioritizes your mastery of the subject. As you demonstrate competence in various areas, you move forward, potentially breezing through subjects you're already familiar with.

This personalized approach contrasts with more rigid semester schedules, often allowing you to graduate more quickly.

Flat-Rate Tuition Costs

Competency-based programs often adopt a flat-rate tuition model where you pay a set fee regardless of the time you take to complete your program. This approach is beneficial as it allows you to quickly complete the material and complete the program faster.

As a result, the overall cost for competency-based programs tends to be lower than for traditional, four-year programs that charge per semester.

Is a Competency-Based Degree Right for You?

For working adults, career changers, and military service members, competency-based programs are often advantageous. These individuals often have diverse personal and professional commitments, requiring enhanced flexibility.

Additionally, nontraditional students often bring prior knowledge and experience that are valuable in a competency-based program. Returning students who may have paused their education often find that competency-based programs accommodate their needs, helping them make up for lost time.

Self-directed learners also thrive in this model as they can easily navigate familiar topics while dedicating more time to new and more challenging subjects. Competency-based programs can help you attain an affordable and accessible college education tailored to your unique needs.

Frequently Asked Questions About Competency-Based Degrees

What is a competency-based master's degree?

A competency-based master's degree assesses your proficiency in specific skills and knowledge required for a specific field. Instead of following a fixed timeframe, you advance as you demonstrate mastery of the required topics. This approach often involves personalized learning, various assessments, and real-world projects.

Can a competency-based degree save you money?

Yes, a competency-based degree can help you save money on higher education. Because you progress based on demonstrated skills, you can complete courses faster, reducing tuition costs. These programs often employ a flat-rate tuition structure, further contributing to affordability, making it a more cost-friendly pathway toward a college degree.

Can you get financial aid for competency-based degrees?

Yes, financial aid is often available for competency-based degrees. Many colleges and universities offering these programs are accredited, allowing you to access federal financial aid, grants, scholarships, and loans, just like in a traditional degree programs. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Compare Your School Options

View the most relevant schools for your interests and compare them by tuition, programs, acceptance rate, and other factors important to finding your college home.