In Washington State, there are over one million people who have earned some college credits but not a degree. Online competency-based programs are being developed to close this gap. The flexible online platform of competency-based education allows any person to earn their degree regardless of their age, employment, and familial commitments. Courses are offered on a rolling start date and students are encouraged to proceed at their own pace.

Bellevue College in Washington piloted an online competency-based certificate in business software developed by Lumen Learning during 2014. The competency-based pilot program was so popular that Bellevue College dropped their conventional online version of the program. As a result of high student interest and completion rates in the certificate program, Bellevue College has given an online competency-based associate degree in business the green light for development. A defining feature of competency-based education is it aims to ensure each student finishes their courses with a baseline level of applied knowledge and core concepts. Students must earn an equivalent of a B grade in order to fulfill the requirement of the course and program. However, courses are not limited to a 10-week structure; students complete each course at their own pace. Therefore, students with prior knowledge of a subject are able to accelerate their course completion, while those who require more time to understand the material are able to take it.

The concept of online competency-based certificates and degrees is not without criticism. While the programs are delivered through the auspices of Bellevue College, the course content is developed, taught, and evaluated by a third party, Lumen Learning. A number of faculty at Bellevue College have expressed apprehension of the competency-based program and their concerns regarding the quality control of the certificates and degrees. Despite the criticism of faculty, the online competency-based programs have been with a positive reception from Bellevue students. Three days into offering the certificate in business software, Bellevue College had 104 students enrolled; an additional 107 were admitted in the second quarter.

Competency-based online programs are positioning themselves as the future of education, providing anybody with the motivation and self-discipline, the opportunity to earn a college certificate or degree. While the pilot programs have met with success in institutions like Bellevue College, it will be interesting to see if they continue to meet success and expand across the United States.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also board member of the Canadian Public Relations Society and contributes as a communications researcher with McMaster University.