Is Competency-Based Education the Wave of the Future?

By Bill Leonard Mar 10, 2015

Competency-based education programs are gaining traction in the workplace, though the standards of instruction and the mechanisms for how students earn credits for work experience vary among the schools and organizations that offer the learning opportunities.

“Many competency-based programs are really in their infancy right now,” said Patricia Galagan, executive editor at the Association for Talent Development in Alexandria, Va. “But the initial results are promising, and the programs could change and revive online learning.”

According to Galagan, online learning and especially MOOCs (massive open online courses) never quite lived up to the hype, and to expectations that vendors and training-and-development professionals had for them. The competency-based approach provides a new way for students to receive educational credits in exchange for work experience and direct demonstrations of what they have learned to do.

On Jan. 25, 2015, the American Enterprise Institute released a report that found a growing number of college and universities are now offering or planning to offer course credits based on students’ knowledge and experience. According to the report, the competency-based model represents a major shift away from course credit hours, which have traditionally required students to spend allotted classroom time with instructors and typically do not offer credits for work experience and acquired knowledge.

“Among the competency-based model’s promising features are its potential to lower college costs and serve adult students in need of flexibility,” the report stated.

Competency-based programs in particular lend themselves to online learning platforms because education is not tied closely to attending classes and lectures. Students pick the schedule that works best for them and do not have to adhere to schedules dictated by a college or learning institution.

The Advantage of Flexibility

“We get our employees when they’re in high school, and they become extremely good in their jobs. But they don’t want to leave [to further their education], because they’re making money and may have a family to support,” said Charlene White, a senior human resource manager with the Gap Inc. “So flexible college programs help us from a retention perspective to keep those employees engaged. And from there, we talk about their future careers with us and leadership positions.”

White oversees the Gap Inc. for Community Colleges program. One of the key partners in the program is College for America, a nonprofit competency-based education initiative housed at Southern New Hampshire University. It partners with employers throughout the United States to offer their employees access to an affordable college education.

“College for America has built up a pretty good reputation and seems to have created a model that many others are starting to follow,” said Galagan.

It touts itself as the “$10,000 four-year college degree program,” because the average cost is $2,500 per student, per year. This price tag for a college education is attractive to employers that reimburse employees for their college tuition, according to Edward M. Shaw, executive vice president of HR and risk manager at Caspers Co., a Florida-based franchisee of McDonald’s restaurants.

“Since our company started offering tuition assistance, I’ve seen more and more of our employees gravitate toward private institutions, which are very expensive,” Shaw said. “In one case, one class at a private institution cost as much as an entire semester of classes at a community college. College for America not only provides better value than many other education options, but it’s also a good fit for our employees.”

An Engaging Investment

White and Shaw, who participated in a College for America-sponsored webinar on Feb. 18, 2015, agreed that investing in and providing employees access to educational opportunities has paid their organizations dividends in improved loyalty and retention. In addition, workers who participate in educational programs tend to be more engaged.

“Anytime we invest time, effort or cash into our employees’ education, we get a higher level of loyalty and therefore retention than almost any other benefit we provide,” Shaw said. “When you’ve been denied or delayed in your education and now work for a company that’s offering you an educational outlet, then the attachment to the company grows much tighter and as a result, the retention rate becomes much better.”

Since students can earn college credits from their work experience and on-the-job knowledge, workers’ interest in furthering their education has taken on a new dimension, according to Shaw.

“The people who participate in the program have much higher confidence in themselves and what they can do,” he said. “We have received some very profound thank-yous from employees because they didn’t think they would ever complete their education. But the competency-based program gave them an education opportunity they probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

Coaching Is the Key

Access to coaches and educational advisors differentiates competency-based programs like College for America from other online education offerings. In the case of MOOCs, students view courses online but without any real contact with educators or college advisors.

With online courses, students typically select courses that interest them on an ad hoc basis, without much direction or advice on what they should take to continue their education and build on what they have learned.

“Having a coach or an advisor really is crucial to make online education programs work correctly,” Galagan said. “Otherwise students are really just set adrift and have to fend for themselves.”

When fending for themselves, students can lose interest quickly and drop out. College for America works with employers to ensure someone on staff is responsible for overseeing the students in the program, and has academic advisors on staff who follow the progress of students.

“Providing academic support to students will determine the success of the program,” said Galagan. “And if educators and employers work together to do this, then competency-based education programs have a good chance of working very well.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.


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