The major argument in favor of competency-based programs is that they will offer nontraditional students a more direct, more affordable path to a degree. This argument is especially made on behalf of older students who can earn college credits based on prior workplace or life experience. The AEI report, by Robert Kelchen, found that nine out of 10 competency-based students are over 25.
The business and instructional models of competency-based degree programs are diverse.
Some, like Straighterline and Capella University, are for-profits; others, like Southern New Hampshire University's College for America Program, are nonprofits, while still others, like University of Maryland University College or Rio Salado College, are part of public university or community college systems.
And the numbers are large. Most programs don't report their competency-based enrollment, but there are nine colleges that are entirely competency-based; these nine colleges alone enroll more than 140,000 undergraduates and 57,000 graduate students.
From a racial, ethnic, and gender standpoint, these colleges resemble college enrollments as a whole. This, conversely, makes them less "nontraditional" than some other mainly online programs.
Whether competency-based programs will really save students money is a bigger question.
Exams, like CLEP, UExcel, or ACE, cost less than $100 for three college credits. And online programs like Western Governor's University have "all you can eat" pricing models, where students pay a fixed rate every six months for all the credits they can earn.
These usually represent savings over other online programs. But time is money. A student who is studying only part-time and progressing more slowly than the average may end up paying more, not less, than in a traditional program. And, some of these newer offerings aren't eligible for federal student aid, which drives students who can't pay into the expensive private loan market.
But, the report notes, the federal government is moving to offer Pell Grants to more of these nontraditional programs as they become more widely accepted as quality options for gaining skills.
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