Competency-Based Education: Expanded Higher Ed Options in Virginia
September 12th, 2023

By: Rebecca Watts

Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., is the Northeast regional vice president for Western Governors University and serves on the Virginia Chamber of Commerce Workforce and Education Executive Committee.


 This August, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released its findings of the states most impacted by America’s labor shortage, according to the chamber’s worker shortage index. Toward the top of the list of the most severely impacted states, Virginia has 47 available workers for every 100 open jobs. Without a top-notch talent pool prepared with relevant 21st-century skills, businesses may fail to remain viable and competitive. Local industries require a skilled workforce to maintain and continuously modernize their service and product offerings, yet there are too many open jobs without qualified people to fill them.

As Virginia’s outstanding higher education institutions respond to the need for workforce development, online competency-based education opportunities have expanded. These options are especially attractive to prospective students seeking to earn a career-relevant degree while working full-time and juggling family responsibilities.

At the same time, national data suggests that since the life-altering events of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are looking for ways to boost their career advancement potential. They don’t want to take on multiple low-paying part-time jobs to get by. They want careers in dependable industries with upward mobility and need education pathways to those careers. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that at predominantly online institutions, graduate student numbers increased by nearly 10% last fall from the previous year, and growth continued by 7.4% this spring. The percentage of Virginia undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in distance courses had been on a steady incline since 2014 but rocketed to about 80% for both of those categories in 2020. As of 2021, about 72% of graduate students and over 60% of undergrads were learning online, with no signs that preference for this modality will return to pre-pandemic levels.

Additionally, combining online modalities with competency-based education has proven effective for learners focused on career pathways. Competency-based education measures skills and subject knowledge rather than time spent in a classroom. In competency-based education pioneered in 1997 by nonprofit, accredited Western Governors University (WGU), each student individually progresses through courses as soon as they can prove they have mastered the material. Every WGU student is assigned a mentor—a faculty member with advanced degrees and relevant experience in a field of study—who provides individualized support to keep students on track for their degree and career goals. WGU has a low-cost, flat-rate tuition per six-month term, during which students can complete as many courses as their schedule allows. In each of WGU’s four colleges—business, health professions, information technology (IT), and education—competency-based degree programs align with workforce imperatives and are tailored for the future of work.

For many of the 13,200 Virginia-based WGU students and alumni, this model is the only way they can achieve a college degree and continue to advance in their careers without interruption. Joshua Richards, based in Culpeper, Virginia, is a first-generation college student working toward his bachelor’s degree in IT from WGU. Living in a rural area, he feels lucky to have access to high-speed internet in his home. After attending Laurel Ridge Community College and securing his associate degree, Richards first transferred to a public university in the commonwealth, where attendance required him to make a one-hour commute to and from school. As a working adult, Richards sought out WGU, where he could earn his degree and industry certifications online without the cost or time constraints of in-person classes. He went from working as an automobile technician to working from home for Cisco Systems as a compliance specialist. He plans to pursue a management position upon graduation.

Innovative approaches to higher education provide a key long-term strategy for workforce investment and labor market recovery. WGU is pleased to partner with other colleges and universities, including the Virginia Community College System to guarantee transfer credit for their graduates, and with local businesses to support talent development objectives and expand access to higher education for their employees.

As Virginia’s economy moves forward, with the roles of education and industry dramatically changed by COVID-19, the learning needs of Virginians continue to evolve and change, as do regional workforce needs and the demand for specific skill sets. Higher education providers have a duty to help connect talent with opportunity by offering a variety of ways to prepare Virginia’s workforce with the credentials employers trust.