A new approach to student learning is transforming how education providers can better meet the individual needs of students, from schoolchildren to college undergraduates.

In traditional classrooms, time is fixed and student learning varies. Schools operate under rigid calendars, schedules, and seat-time requirements. When the bell rings, official learning time ends whether or not students have fully mastered the material. Competency-based learning turns this model on its head.

A new study from the California-based Innosight Institute shows how Western Governors University (WGU), a wholly online university built on competency-based learning, accommodates a 30 percent annual enrollment growth.

Competency-based learning has become a hot topic in K-12 education,” said Michael B. Horn, Innosight Institute Education Executive Director.  The study “serves as a powerful example for states looking to move away from a seat-time-based public K-12 education system to a student-centric option that allows students to move at their own path and pace.”

In 1995, the governors of several western states met to address a shared challenge. With limited funding for buildings and professors, they needed to create high-quality, affordable postsecondary options for a growing population of adults with busy lives and hectic schedules, factors that make attending traditional colleges and universities difficult.

The governors, including then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, and Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer, believed a wholly online university, with no classrooms, dorms, or traditional in-person lectures could be the solution.

Students could enroll throughout the year. There would be no attendance or participation requirements. Instead, students would complete their degree programs at their own pace, demonstrating mastery in their fields of study by passing a series of required assignments and proficiency assessments.

Those ideas became the foundation of Western Governors University (WGU). It was chartered in 1996 with $20 million in seed money from the governors of 18 states and Guam then incorporated as a private, nonprofit university in 1997. After WGU established headquarters in Salt Lake City and Denver, it accepted 30 students in 1999.

By 2003 WGU enrolled 300 students, and today it enrolls more than 30,000 students nationwide. It is supported by over 20 major corporations and foundations.

“What makes us most unique,” said Robert W. Mendenhall, WCU President, “is that …we actually measure ‘learning’ rather than ‘time’. So for each degree, we define what we expect graduates to know, and be able to do. When they demonstrate it, they graduate—independent of how many classes they’ve taken.”

This kind of focus drives WCU to improve quality and expand educational opportunities so students degrees and other credentials that are credible to both academic institutions and employers.

WGU students are typically in their mid-thirties, and 70 percent have full-time jobs. They have work and family obligations requiring flexible schedules, so degree programs are rigorous but designed to accommodate students’ busy lives.

WGU offers more than 50 bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Business, Teacher Education, Information Technology, and Health Professions. Instead of than earning degrees based on credit hours or class time, students must demonstrate competency in their degree subject matter.

Students receive online courses of study and take pre-assessments to identify any gaps. They use their courses of study to prepare for the final assessment, which they can take any time they feel ready. Students’ competency is measured both by high-stakes, proctored exams as well as performance assessments, including demonstrations, activities, or projects. Passing a WGU competency assessment is equivalent to a ‘B’ or better at a traditional university.

WGU students have individual mentors who stay with them from the time they enroll until they graduate to ensure students stay on track. They also have course mentors, who are subject-matter experts providing ongoing tutorial support. Additionally, WGU employs 300 adjunct faculty members whose sole responsibility is to grade assessments. This practice ensures grading is based strictly on the quality of students’ work.

Competency-based education rewards students for what they know, not for how they learn

it,” explains study author Heather Staker, so students can proceed at their own pace. The average WCU student completes a baccalaureate degree in less than 30 months.  Tuition is also affordable.

WGU charges a flat rate of between $2,890 and $4,250 per six-month term, depending on the program. “The ‘all-you-can-eat’ approach means that for this flat payment, WGU allows students to take as many courses of study each term as they can handle,” explains Staker. “This tuition is one-sixth of the annual expense at a private four-year college on average and half as much as an online for-profit like the University of Phoenix.”

Competency-based learning is a next-generation model requiring a novel student information accountability system. Rather than focus on creating class schedules, WCU’s system focuses on results.

The customized WGU system tracks when student mentors refer students for an assessment, when students schedule assessments, and whether they pass. WGU also has a drops database, which records why students withdraw or take term breaks. Student services staff interview students who have left WCU to determine their reason for leaving. Student responses help improve WGU services.

A similar model could be applied to K-12 education, which struggles to raise student performance and close achievement gaps. Individualized learning options like the ones offered at WCU could transform elementary and secondary schools by improving student learning as well as cost efficiency.