WKU introduces competency-based degree

Jessica Voorhees

WKU piloted a competency-based education course this year as part of the Kentucky Commonwealth College initiative to provide flexible programs for adult learners. 

Competency-based learning allows students to earn credit based on mastery of skills acquired at their own pace, instead of a set number of credit hours completed. 

Richard Miller, vice provost for Academic Affairs and chief diversity officer, said many higher education administrators are looking into the program as an alternative to credit-hour based learning.

“It’s a fluid academic initiative, and it’s become more and more popular,” he said. 

Gordon Emslie, academic provost, said student and employer interest drove the development of the program. 

“More and more employers are telling us it’s not how many credit hours you have on your transcript; it’s what what you know and what you do, your skills and competencies,” he said. 

Emslie said the Bowling Green Chamber of Commerce issued the Urgent Call for Action study about two years ago for 9,000 advanced jobs in the manufacturing industry. 

“We can’t expect to fill that through the traditional college student pipeline,” he said. 

WKU developed the Advanced Manufacturing On Demand degree in response to the regional demand for jobs in that field. 

Emslie said the competencies are also not currently recognized as valid criteria for a transcript, so WKU broke down the Advanced Manufacturing degree program into one credit hour modules, each of which is two or three competencies. 

“We’ve got to get some of the folks already out there in the industry back to school to acquire these high-level skills and apply them to advance their career,” Emslie said.

The online course provides an opportunity for nontraditional students who may have other jobs or family obligations to obtain degrees on their own time. 

The Council on Postsecondary Education requested millions to fund the Kentucky Commonwealth College initiative for competency-based courses but didn’t receive any money.

However, WKU and the University of Louisville, which developed a program in the healthcare sector, introduced courses despite the lack of outside funds.

Emslie said the Department of Education approved WKU as a trial site for a financial aid disbursement model where federal aid recipients will receive funds along with their competency-based education. 

Federal financial aid is usually distributed on a semester by semester credit-hour basis, so through this program students will receive aid despite not following a credit-hour program. 

Emslie said competency-based learning is the future of higher education because it provides students the ability to gain skills instead of credit hours. 

“We’re getting closer to the idea that what you’re really doing is acquiring skills in college,” he said.