Competency-Based Universities


In this episode of the Higher Ed Happy Hour podcast, I spoke with Rick Benbow. Rick is the Regional Vice President (West Region) of Western Governors University, America’s first and largest competency-based university. We explore competency-based universities and how they differ from traditional degree programs at Universities and Colleges.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation. And if you'd like, you can listen to the conversation here:


Ian Evenstar: Welcome to the show, Rick. To set the table, tell us, what is a competency-based university?

Rick Benbow: A competency-based university is a university that's based on competencies and skills. The traditional model is more or less based on seat-time and advancing at the end of the semester. The competency-based model takes into account the prior learning a student may have. Not necessarily assuming that everyone starts in the same place and finishes at the same time. Competency-based, the model allows students to leverage that prior learning and advance as they demonstrate skills and competencies associated with that particular course. Our model allows students to really accelerate or advance at their pace. And our tuition model really allows them also to control costs associated with attending a university.

IE: That's great. So what I heard there in that answer is that a competency-based program basically allows you to master specific skills in your field of interest, and kind of study at a pace that works for you based on the level of competency that you have at any given moment. Is that correct?

RB: Yes. Our students can advance as they demonstrate mastery of the skills and competencies associated with the course. And so they can advance at their pace.

IE: That's great. That's a huge benefit to students. And I imagine that there are particular demographics where this benefits certain students more perhaps than others. What are some other benefits to students?

RB: I think there are a lot of benefits for competency-based learning, just in terms of expanding pathways to maybe underserved students who were not necessarily traditionally well served by the traditional brick-and-mortar institution. I think what we're seeing now is a lot of students questioning, maybe, the return on investment of attending a traditional higher ed university. There are adult learners who, because of some unforeseen circumstances, maybe having to raise a family or having to work, kind of fall out of that pathway of attending a traditional university, where there are time requirements to attend class at a certain time, take exams at a certain time. It doesn't necessarily offer flexibility. Our model, the online competency-based model, really offers flexibility and affordability and accessibility to those students who find themselves with other life obligations. And so we started 25 years ago with the idea of removing some of those barriers associated with attending a traditional university and expanding pathways and access to higher education.

IE: One of the benefits to the institution, or to WGU, or universities that follow this model, must be that it allows for a greater diversity of student population. Is that correct?

RB: Absolutely. 70% of our students come from one or more underserved populations. First-time college students, first-generation college students, I should say, low-income, students of color, or rural residents. Again, the ability to access, the flexibility to attend on your schedule, and the affordability has really expanded and provided on-ramps, again, for those traditionally underserved populations to access higher education. But I would also say that we probably also provide pathways to maybe the more advanced learner, those who find themselves maybe five to 10 years removed from receiving their undergraduate degree, but realize that their skills are a little outdated, or they need to upskill or reskill to remain relevant in the workforce or find that career path. But again, because of family obligations and the obligation to work, may not find the traditional pathway accessible. And so again, the completely online model affords those individuals as well to find different pathways to, again, higher education to enhance their career trajectory.

IE: Are there other benefits to the administration or to the university to adopting a competency-based learning or the competency-based model?

RB: Our curriculum is based on, well, we work in collaboration with the workforce and industry to make sure that our courses are providing the most in-demand skills associated with a particular occupation. So we are constantly innovating, revamping, revising, and amending our curriculum to ensure that our students have that skill, that competency that is associated with that particular occupation. I think we're starting to see this bear out in the marketplace as well as we kind of deal with the skill shortage here in America, probably in the world, where again, because of technology, individuals need to constantly update their skillset. And we're moving it in that direction where we recognize this and leading the effort, leading the conversation, in collaboration with other institutions, as well as employers, of being able to dissect and break down courses and identify the skills and competencies associated with that particular course, working with employers to get a sense of what skills and competencies associated with a specific occupation. So that employer and employee now can speak the same language just in terms of whether or not an individual is qualified, but also empowering that student with the knowledge that the skills and competencies he is attaining in his journey absolutely have value in the workforce and for a specific occupation.

IE: It sounds like a win-win when it comes to marketplace demand and what employers are looking for. And then from an enrollment standpoint, finding students to actually meet that need, is very symbiotic. And what I heard you say too, is that it allows the university, WGU, to actually continue to innovate and stay somewhat flexible in the curriculum design, kind of adapting to different needs within the market. And potentially, even as you mentioned, this is going to bear out, potentially even accelerate the growth of the university long term, because it is meeting that demand.

RB: Absolutely. And we are seeing some of that now just in terms of our enrollment, and our applications are up. But I think what's really relevant is that now we're starting to see large employers, tech companies, kind of also dabbling in the field of upskilling and reskilling their own employees. And so we're on the cutting edge, again, of leading the conversation of creating the skills-based economy. Where our curriculum identifies those skills and competencies associated with specific career paths and occupations. And so again, being able to innovate, and address workforce needs has created lots of opportunities for us to continue to innovate and reinvent ourselves as we move forward.

IE: We've highlighted a lot of the benefits. And I'm curious, because I think it's only fair to look at some of the disadvantages, maybe the weaknesses. What would you say to a critic of competency-based learning, or where do you feel like those weaknesses might live?

RB: I think when you compare it against maybe the traditional route, some may say that we may fall short in terms of student engagement, student interaction, per se. The dialogue, maybe the development of soft skills, and being able to navigate real live discussions in a classroom setting. But I think technology again helps address that. We're chatting now. I'm not sure if we're in the same city, but we're having a conversation and engaging around competency-based learning. We're starting to see traditional universities maybe adopt this model as they move some of their programs online, where they create chat rooms. Where students can engage in dialogue and conversation and debate around specific topics or approaches to problem-solving. And so I think maybe that argument may have been good in terms of identifying maybe a shortcoming of the competency-based model or online learning, but with the advancements of technology, I think we are addressing that and creating those spaces where we can have the rich dialogue and debate around problem-solving and different approaches to a particular subject.

IE: I'm sure you're already considering this, and it's part of the plan, but how do you address competency-based learning when it comes to soft skills, like maybe presentation, or people skills, or rhetoric? Kind of the liberal arts, if you will. How do you address some of those softer skills that are harder to assess?

RB: I think that comes across again in the platforms that we have in terms of the chat. Students develop presentations to pass assessments. But again, most of our students are adult learners. And so they are coming to us having worked in a real live setting where they're gaining real-world experience. And so we think that the competency-based model or online learning can only enhance their position in the work field, particularly if they're getting the skills and competencies associated with that particular field. I think that lends someone to develop the confidence in order to participate in the workforce and in a corporate setting, in a corporate dialogue to be able to defend their position. And so I think, again, being able to access that education in a setting that allows them not necessarily to forego their family obligations or their work obligations can only enhance someone standing in the workplace by giving them the confidence to succeed, the confidence to participate in the workforce. So yeah, I think it's just another alternative, maybe not necessarily the only alternative. But a way for individuals to enhance their skillset throughout upskilling and reskilling in today's workforce.

IE: That's a really cool insight that you just shared with us, that competency, up-leveling your skillset actually leads to confidence. And confidence in general is one of the drivers of feeling at ease and comfortable speaking up or comfortable presenting. So competency leads to confidence, which then naturally helps in those softer skills just as part of that process. You mentioned the kind of barrier of entry or some of the challenges that students face. Student debt, obviously. I mean, this is huge, and continues to be, a huge issue in our country. How are universities like Western Governors University, how are you helping turn this problem around?

RB: From the very beginning, we've understood that could be a barrier. We have a six-month flat rate tuition schedule where students are allowed to pass as many courses as they can complete within six months. And the price point for that six-month tuition rate does not increase. We're a nonprofit university, we're student-centric. Again, our whole mission was to remove those barriers. And this is just a model that WGU has adopted. Our six-month flat rate tuition schedule is a little over $4,000 per six months, which is anywhere from a third of the cost of a traditional university, with the escalating cost of tuition. And so we feel that, again being very student-centric, we allow our students to realize the return on their investment a lot quicker. And really gives them the opportunity to attain the skills and competencies and the certification associated with going through the program while they build up their experience in that particular field. And to me, that's where WGU is really a difference maker. And that when our students graduate, they're more than likely to have that experience align with their program, which gives them absolute value in the workforce, in the workplace.

IE: Flat-rate schedule for six months. That is incredible. I hope universities listening right now will consider this as an option for them. You mentioned that the model, as it stands now, it's all online, correct?

RB: Correct.

IE: Okay. Would this work for offline or in-person on campus, or do you think competency-based learning is actually best catered toward an online environment?

RB: I think it's best catered toward an online environment, taking absolute advantage of technology. And we look at it now. I mean traditional students, I have two teenage daughters who mostly do everything on their computer or their cell phone. And that's the way they like to engage. In my prior life, I had the opportunity to see digital tools at work in a high school classroom setting, where students had the opportunity to experiment with growing a farm or a garden. And based on different ingredients and the watering schedule and nurturing schedule of the plants, they could see, based on their decisions, how quickly or how bountiful that farm would be based on their inputs or their decisions.
The technology-based model gives that real-world feedback, and I think engages students a little bit more. It gets them excited about learning. And again, you can kind of change that dynamic and introduce new sets of elements into their learning experience, which can only enhance their learning experience. And I think technology is here to stay, and we need to leverage it as much as possible to ensure that our students have a wide and deep experience in terms of learning.

IE: So being an educator myself, this was one of the most important messages that I brought to an online environment during COVID. So walking into that first day of class in a Zoom room and reminding these students, "Hey, you're not getting that on-campus experience, but what you are getting is that first experience of learning how to leverage these digital tools, learning how to make technology, this new norm, work for your success and your prosperity." So this is actually part of that learning curve that we're all experiencing. And I think a lot of learners, adult learners, and even younger learners, they're developing skills that people like you and me, maybe we had to kind of catch up. So in a way they're a few steps ahead of us already.

RB: And you raise a fantastic point. I like to say that in my role at the very essence of getting to my passion and my mission here at WGU is not only creating pathways to opportunity through higher education, but it's also convincing students who didn't think higher education was for them and converting them into lifelong learners. And I think that's where we are just in terms of education as an industry, we have to look at it from that perspective. We're not recruiting for the two-year student or the four-year student, we're recruiting for the lifelong learner. Because the industry has had such an impact, or I should say technology has had such an impact on the industry and the jobs and the skills that are required to, again, have that value of, we have to constantly update our skills, our competencies. And be up to date on the latest in terms of Excel, PowerPoint, Zoom, and Salesforce, all of this is pertinent in the workforce. And again, we have to constantly update our skillset to realize the value in the workplace. And so you raise a very valid point. Everything that we're doing now absolutely is a part of today's new work environment.

IE: It's obviously here to stay, the competency-based learning, the digital environment, being able to operate, learn, and grow in these environments. Do you think that the traditional learning model will still have a place say 10, 15, 20 years from now? Or do you feel that competency-based learning is going to kind of usurp the market share of today's learners?

RB: Competency-based model university or learning may not be for everyone. I think the traditional model will still be relevant. Some people prefer the traditional model. But I think at some point it may become more hybrid, if you will. Simply because I think as a society and as an economy, we have to expand pathways to higher education. And I think there's enough room in the ecosystem for everyone to participate where the pie is growing. And it's a matter of ensuring that we will be moving from an exclusive type of environment for higher education to a more inclusive environment. And depending on your desire to have higher rankings may depend on the strategy that you employ. But I think at some point all universities will be expanding pathways to higher education, to different segments of the population, simply because it'll be needed so that we can have an employable workforce.

IE: I really appreciate and love what you said too, that you're helping those students who may not identify as lifelong learners or may not identify as the university is right for me, you're opening their eyes and their hearts to that possibility and really giving them that first chance. And that can make a world of difference just in and of itself. And on the note of traditional learning and what kind of we're seeing in more traditional models, it's curious because they're feeling a lot of market pressure too. And so they're learning outcomes are now trying to address some career outcomes and trying to find ways to validate the intense return on investment on what that tuition fee looks like. So I do agree that I think there's going to be some kind of hybridization or meeting in the middle that ultimately happens between a model like yours and WGU, and maybe a more traditional model kind of meeting there in the middle.

RB: And it's happening now. I think most major universities offer some type of online graduate program. Again, different demographic in terms of customers. For a more professional customer who probably has a full-time job, the online offering is a good pathway. And so it's occurring now, but I think maybe you'll start to see more of that at the undergraduate level as well.

IE: Well, you're obviously an advocate for higher education and very passionate about what you do. Has it always been like this? I mean, at what point did you decide to commit your life to the pursuit of education?

RB: Wow, great question. I think I've always had a passion to create public value and create an impact or have an impact on the community that I serve. And it's been in every job that I've had. From corporate America to civil service and city government, I've always tried to find a way to make an impact. And I just love technology. I love the way technology can make a Herculean task, and boil them down to really digestible parts and efficient ways of problem-solving. And stumbling upon WGU and working with WGU allows me to dabble in both of my passions. Making an impact, leveraging technology for those, again, who may not have access to it or understand the impact that technology can have on their lives.
And so working at WGU, and finding ways to enhance individuals; career trajectory, give them the skills and competencies, that they have some self-value, some confidence to participate in the workforce, to create their own business, to make an impact in their own community as a nurse or as a teacher or as an IT professional. I mean, there is something really rewarding and self-gratifying about being able to participate in that as an individual. And so this is my "why." And extremely passionate about helping all those who want higher education. I firmly believe in higher education and the opportunities it can create. I have two master's degrees and an undergraduate degree, and firmly believe that I wouldn't be here today representing WGU had I not made that decision to invest in myself. It came at a cost that I'll probably be paying for the rest of my life. But WGU has opened my eyes to that individuals don't have to take the same route that I took or incur the amount of debt that I did. There is an alternative way. It could be a better way for some. But there is a way for everyone to pursue their dreams, reinvigorate the promise of higher education, and really pursue their dreams and passion to become all they want to become and realize their own potential.

IE: Yeah. So what I heard you say is it's always been a part of you. You were born with this set of skills and this particular passion that you found. That's beautiful. We had a podcast recently, and the guest said, "One thing to remember in terms of the pursuit of education, higher education, in particular, is that it's not a four-year investment. It's a 40-year investment." You are investing in the rest of your life. And based on what you just shared, I think you're a true testament to that sentiment.

RB: Thank you so much. I appreciate that.

IE: You're welcome. It's great to kind of commune with people who believe passionately about higher education. What's on the horizon? What does Western Governors University have planned for the future? I know you're going to be innovating and working with some larger enterprises or maybe some of the demands from different partners that you have within the marketplace. What else is on the horizon?

RB: Continuing to reinvent alternative pathways to higher education and opportunity? One of the things that I'm really, really excited about is being on the leading edge, if you will, of executing and initiating the conversation around the skills-based economy. Again, I think I mentioned that earlier, where our courses will identify specific skills and competencies and tie those to skills and competencies associated with specific occupations. We're in collaboration with other higher ed institutions, as well as employer corporate organizations that are trying to figure this dynamic out of we're having trouble identifying those with specific skills that fit this occupation. How do we go about being able to communicate and signal with skills and competencies associated with this occupation so that we ensure we get the person needed for this position? We're in the middle of that conversation and bringing these two parties together. And really, really excited about participating in that venture and that campaign and that initiative where employers and employees can speak directly to each other and signal and know for a fact that that individual has the skills and competencies required. And that individual can feel confident going in that they have the skills and competencies to do the job that is required or demanded of them.

IE: Yeah. Are you looking for other partnerships within higher education from universities, colleges, or academies?

RB: Yes. I think our Open Skills Network, we have a website. I can provide that to you. But yes, we are looking for those opportunities and individuals to participate.

IE: So for those listening, what would be the best way to contact you if, let's say, they're senior administration at a university, and they're looking to plug into the model that you have, and maybe explore what a partnership might look like?

RB: Yep.

IE: Okay. Excellent. Any parting words? You've given us a lot, but any final thoughts?

RB: Just thank you for having me. Appreciate the opportunity, again, to talk about WGU, talk about myself, and my passion. But really just the opportunity to let folks know that there is an alternative pathway. We are reinvigorating the promise of higher education and really giving individuals the power to pursue their dreams and realize their own potential.


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