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Competency-based education offers students an expedited, flexible degree option

Competency-based education (CBE) is a trending topic in higher education, and for good reason. This emerging learning model offers busy adults a program designed to help further balance work and family while going to school.

Traditionally, rigid structure around due dates is used as a defining metric for arrangement and design of college courses — the instructor provides a syllabus on the first day of class, there’s a final exam on the last day, and the way students spend the time in between those dates is predetermined. Attend a fixed lecture, follow the predefined experience, complete the assignments and pass the exams, and you’re likely to complete the class and earn credit.

Competency-based education (CBE), on the other hand, challenges the status quo. At University of Phoenix, CBE provides a degree option that is more personalized, embraces real-world experience and allows the opportunity for students to leverage what they already know in order to demonstrate learning and meet requirements. Students looking for flexibility and autonomy may find it in a CBE program.

“CBE allows students with foundational knowledge in an area to leverage that knowledge during the learning process,” said Dr. Marc Booker, associate provost. “A student is not just getting tested and quizzed. With the guidance of faculty, students are actually creating a deliverable that demonstrates the student’s skills and that they have met a specific competency.”

CBE assignments translate to tangible results

While theory is still a fundamental of the curriculum, CBE programs also emphasize mastery of skills and proficiency requirements for specific fields, industries and jobs. The application of that theory through projects and assignments via authentic assessments allows students to demonstrate their understanding of the curriculum in outcomes that can yield tangible results through assignments that resemble real-life work products.

For instance, in a traditional Master of Business Administration (MBA) course, students might write about the theory and philosophy of a change management plan for a business — any business. In a CBE program a student could create an actual plan for their business or company. It provides a whole different learning experience and a tangible outcome a working student can immediately implement to leverage and translate their learning into their professional lives.

Dr. Booker said CBE MBA students have expressed excitement about the way an assessment on a standard business topic can be immediately integrated into their daily work needs.

“You’re being assessed on your competency in an area through authentic ways that not only show your understanding of the topic, but also allow you to take the product from the classroom and use it at work,” he said. “For example, as part of an assessment in our Managing in a Changing Environment course students are asked to complete an actual SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity and threat) analysis, and some students are specifically using their own organization in order to take the results of this analysis back to make improvements where they work.”

CBE programs are as rigorous as their traditional counterparts

Many CBE programs align with industry standards and reflect a scaffold approach to content, marrying critical thinking and creativity with learning outcomes. Each program has admission requirements related to experience within the field or industry and required levels of education for consideration. One important qualifier: Students must be self-motivated, organized and ready to fully participate.

“CBE students are largely self-managed, with students being in charge of their own progress in many ways,” said Dr. Jennifer Brock, associate provost of curriculum design and instructional technology.

For some students, that level of flexibility and autonomy is a challenge. For them, a traditional program might be a better fit. Ultimately, the pliability of the program, the dedicated support of faculty and the opportunity to be in the driver’s seat with learning are what CBE is all about, Dr. Brock said.

“Students can use their competency assessments right away in their jobs, in their careers, in the real world,” she said.

University of Phoenix recognizes the value of an adult learner’s work and life experience, and views CBE as another way to embrace prior knowledge to facilitate learning. In January 2020, University of Phoenix launched its first competency-based degree, the CBE MBA program. Additional CBE programs in Registered Nursing to Bachelor of Science in Nursing; Health Administration; and Information Systems are now available.

As an additional perk — because of the flexible nature of CBE programs — a graduate student with extensive professional experience may be able to approach content more quickly than in a traditional program, with completion possible in approximately 12 months, for less than $11,000.

Dr. Booker said the new CBE programs allow students the freedom to explore avenues to earn a degree by applying the objectives and outcomes in a way that’s meaningful to a range of career options.

“As a career-outcome focused institution, it’s important to constantly iterate and adapt,” Dr. Booker said. “We will continue to grow and expand this program offering as it fits with adult learners who want to accelerate their careers.”

UOPX CBE offerings

University of Phoenix offers four competency-based degree programs:

Master of Business Administration (MBA) – Learn advanced business skills, including management, decision-making and leveraging technology, for less than $10,000.

Master of Information Systems (MIS) – Prepare to lead IT development, projects and initiatives and address real-world business challenges, for less than $11,000.

Master of Health Administration(MHA) – Engage in a critical analysis of emerging healthcare needs and trends and demonstrate mastery of ACHE industry-aligned competencies, for less than $11,000.

Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) – Advance your knowledge as a researcher, practitioner and leader while focusing on evidence-based, holistic patient-centered care, for less than $10,000.