Competency-based degree programs in higher education: Opportunities and challenges

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.

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