Competency-based Degree Programs in Higher Education: Opportunities and Challenges

Competency-based learning in higher education recently increased in popularity and support due to the need for more efficiency and transparency in the higher education sector. The third-party groups invested in competency-based learning include individual institutions, accreditation agencies, associations, and policy makers. At the core of each competency-based degree program is a list of competencies (abilities, knowledge, and skills) that graduating students from a particular degree must be successfully able to demonstrate. Competency-based education has been seen from time to time in various segments of education and training, as well as professional higher education (e.g., medical education).

This recent reemergence in undergraduate and graduate education as well as in online learning is due to its support and acceptance from various gatekeepers such as policy makers, legislators, accreditation bodies, and foundations. Furthermore, with this support and acceptance, these gatekeepers are addressing the economic needs of American society. In this uncertain economic environment, having a definitive and transparent set of outcomes in a degree allows students be more employable, thus making competency-based education a popular option.

Globally, the competency-based approach to degree programs follows the European “Bologna Process.” This continent-wide process allows countries to attain maximum comparability of their degree programs based on qualifications and competencies. This effort resulted in the Lisbon Recognition Convention where the various qualifications for degrees were articulated. This Convention was ratified by more than 40 European countries as well as some countries outside Europe.

Currently, the vast majorities of competency-based degree programs are variants of online learning and have historically emerged from increased efforts focused on learning outcomes and assessment in higher education. The cognitive complexity of these demonstrations is commensurate with the degree level. Tactically, one group of degree programs ties these degree program competencies to the seat-time credit award process, while a second group of schools bypasses the traditional seat-time approach and emphasizes the final competencies of a degree program, thus resulting in the elimination of time-based learning.

Finally, while this approach has gained its popularity mostly from online degree programs, its next phase includes several attempts to implement this approach across the spectrum of higher education. This includes various gatekeepers such as policy makers, legislators, accreditation bodies, and the foundations that have accepted it.


Advocates of this approach argue that it increases the transparency of higher education, enhances the relationship between degree programs and the job market, improves the understanding of “what really goes on in higher education” by future students, governmental officials, lawmakers, and the public at large. Furthermore, this approach is learner-centered and moves the discussion from educational inputs and processes to direct learning outcomes.

Competency-based degree programs can allow faculty and university administration to improve the vertical integration within a subject matter by better identifying the level of competencies that should directly be associated with a degree (Associate, Bachelor, Master, and Professional Doctorate degree programs). Similarly, a better horizontal integration might be possible among cognate programs within a degree (e.g., Master degree programs in Organizational Behavior, Industrial Psychology, Organizational Management, and Leadership). One can argue that these clarifications of the various inter-linkages can improve the institutional resource allocation process although no empirical evidence exists to verify this argument.

From a utilitarian point of view, a competency-based degree program can reduce the cost for a degree, shorten the time to degree, provide useful information for employers looking to hire new employees, and increase the transfer opportunities among degree programs using this approach, which results in greater portability worldwide. This approach creates a globally parallel path to the Lisbon Convention and could increase the cooperation between U.S. institutions of higher learning and European countries.


The current standard for competency-based degree changes focuses dominantly on the cognitive domain of learning. Recent studies on cognitive science have focused on the complex relationships among three domains in developing and sustaining motivated learning. The cognitive domain is only one of these three areas. The affective domain includes specific strategies to develop the motivation to learn skills through emotional preparedness, accepted values, and developed attitudes and feelings toward learning. The third area, which is gaining salience in the learning arena, is the meta-cognition domain which includes the development of mental processes that enable learners to self monitor and analyze their learning performance as well as to self identify strategies to help them learn effectively. To benefit from these relatively recent developments, a more holistic competency based degree framework is indeed needed. This new approach should strike a curricular balance in developing (and assessing) the three domains.

The competency-based approach should also address the threats of oversimplification and reductionism inherited from breaking the degree program into a large number of abilities and competencies. This phenomenon can result in the “Monkey See, Monkey Do” syndrome. Similarly, the emphasis on competency-based performances, abilities, and skills may be too limited as to discourage learning outside the scope of degree competencies as well to inhibit innovation both as a learning goal and as an integral part of the curriculum development.

Finally, although this aspect is included in the multi-domains of effective learning, the “learning to learn” is an important component of building an educated workforce and a life-long learning society. Some competency-based program designers tend to emphasize an immediate set of measurable abilities, skills, and competencies that enable the learner to gain immediate gratification of attaining a benchmark. This often results in deemphasizing long-term desirable outcomes such as motivated long-term learning.

It is not hard to comprehend why competency-based degree programs have gained in popularity and interest across higher education. The opportunities for widespread use exist and will expand. At the same time, the challenges for universal application and implementation cannot be ignored. The next phase of competency-based degree programs will need to address each of these challenges.

Touro University Worldwide (TUW) believes in the transformative power of continued education. TUW students are committed to social justice, intellectual pursuit and philanthropic duty and receive a well-rounded educational experience focused on the holistic development of the individual. An advanced degree from TUW can change your career trajectory and your future putting you on a path towards advancement and lifelong success.

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