If you are considering earning a college degree from an online program, you may have encountered terms such as credit-based and competency-based. Credits and competencies are two ways online colleges measure progress toward degrees. These concepts can be sources of confusion for potential students, but understanding the differences is important for choosing the online college degree program that will best help you achieve your goals.

Credit vs. Competency

Traditionally, college programs have measured progress toward a degree in units called credits, credit hours, or semester hours. Earning the average bachelor’s degree, for example, requires students to complete at least 120 semester hours or credits of study. A typical college course will count for three to five credits or semester hours, and students must pass enough courses to meet the degree requirement.

Competency-based programs are somewhat different from credit-based degree programs. Instead of a number, students must demonstrate proficiency in a series of required abilities. The goal of competency-based programs is often to teach practical skills that students will need in their daily lives during their careers as opposed to theories or philosophical ideas. Competency-based programs are growing as high-profile employers and online colleges work together to offer degree programs for employees who want to go or go back to school, as Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported.

How to Know Which Type of Program Is Best for You

Often, your previous education and experience level plays a role in which type of degree program is the right choice for achieving your academic and career goals. For example, students with a good deal of relevant professional experience but little or no previous college-level studies might be better served by choosing a competency-based degree program, according to The Business Journals. These professionals can draw upon their past experience to demonstrate the abilities and knowledge they have already developed and test out of lessons and courses that would be redundant. Skipping over the subject matter that they already know well can save these professionals time – and if they have to take fewer courses to earn their degrees, they may also be able to save money.

On the other hand, credit-based programs are still a good choice for traditional students who don’t yet have experience in their desired field of work. If students have completed some college study in the past, whether just a course or two or enough work to earn an associate’s degree, they may be able to transfer the credits they have already earned to their new bachelor’s degree program.

Before you enroll in an online degree program, you should investigate whether the school will use credits or competencies to determine when you are ready to graduate. Of course, students of any education and experience levels can choose either type of program. However, understanding how your past education and experience can help you earn your degree in less time and with less cost is important for choosing the college that’s right for you.