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

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.

About Touro University Worldwide:

Touro University Worldwide is a nonprofit organization established by philanthropic visionaries who are committed to developing a passionate, connected learning community that can help students achieve their individual academic goals. Students at Touro University Worldwide are committed to social justice, intellectual pursuit, and professional development. This philosophy is derived from the Judaic foundation on which the University was originally founded and a value system that welcomes all cultures and backgrounds.

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