Competency-Based Degree Programs in the U.S.: Postsecondary Credentials for Measurable Student Learning and Performance

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As our economy evolves, there is growing recognition of the importance of an educated workforce. A key challenge is how to help more people, particularly adults, succeed at the postsecondary level and earn degrees. However, promoting degree completion is not our only challenge. Today our higher education system is facing a crisis regarding its perceived quality. One model for improving quality is competency-based education, in which an institution clearly defines the specific competencies expected of its graduates.

This paper examines the current state of competency-based postsecondary education in the U.S., profiling the various types of competency-based, or competency-focused, models that currently exist, the extent to which these programs assess for student competencies or learning outcomes, and the extent to which these programs operate outside of a credit-based system. These programs can help inform other institutions interested in developing a stronger focus on competencies, whether by demonstrating the possibilities of high-quality programs or by facilitating the recognition of learning acquired outside of traditional instruction.