The convenience of online college courses often appeal to nontraditional college students, but this factors aren’t the only attributes that make online college ideal for students with plenty of life and work experience. Some online college programs are what’s called competency-based. This means they reward students for the relevant information they already know – the mastery of subject matter they’ve gained through their work. Competency-based programs differ from credit-based online degree programs, but both are ways of evaluating student progress toward earning a degree.

How Colleges Measure Competency

It makes sense to recognize what students already know instead of treating every student as a blank slate and making them take redundant courses. However, how does a school find out what subjects and levels of knowledge students have attained competency in already?

To prove their competency, students take tests that evaluate the knowledge they already have in the subject of study. The results of those tests allow students to skip courses if they already know the information, The Atlantic reported. By skipping classes they don’t need, students can more quickly complete the coursework they need.

Contrasting Credit-Based and Competency-Based Programs

All legitimate college degree programs, online and traditional, award degrees based on the academic progress a student has shown. Credit-based and competency-based programs are simply two different ways of measuring that progress.

Credit-based programs, which most college degree programs are, measure progress according to the quantity of courses you complete. While you must complete required courses to earn your degree, you must also complete a set number of credits. Different classes are worth different credit amounts.

For students who are familiar with the subject already, this may mean sitting through classes and doing coursework on topics you already know thoroughly. This doesn’t happen in competency-based programs, because these programs measure progress toward your degree based on what you know, not what courses you take.

Is a Credit-Based or Competency-Based Program Right for You?

Whether a credit-based or competency-based online college degree program makes the most sense for you depends on your level of experience.

Have you spent years working as a professional in your field, but you need a degree to prove your expertise for advancement? Then a competency-based program will help you earn your degree faster and for less money, testing out of classes you don’t need and focusing instead on the courses that will teach you something new.

If, on the other hand, you’re a recent high school graduate or a newcomer to the field as you make a major career change, you won’t already have the specific competencies you would need to test out of classes. You can still enroll in a competency-based program, but it won’t provide you with a special advantage over a credit-based program.

For the right student, a competency-based program can make earning a degree faster and more affordable. However, this shouldn’t be the only factor students consider. Be aware of your online college’s reputation and accreditation.