Degree Completion Strategies

Throughout the higher education industry, institutions have begun to reassess and consider the design of degree completion strategies. Two popular strategies are competency-based education (CBE) and prior learning assessment (PLA). Both strategies aim to aide students in their degree completion and offer institutions an innovative outlet by which to meet student needs. Trends and details for each strategy are outlined below in accordance with SACSCOC policies and System considerations. This is not an endorsement of either strategy, but rather a presentation of the components of two specific strategies geared to improve degree completion.

Many institutions today face a wide range of challenges including economic pressures, changing expectations of an evolving target student population, and changing market demands regarding the skill sets of modern graduates. This wide array of challenges has motivated educational providers to consider new and improved methods to prepare current and future students for the fast-paced and ever evolving workforce. One method, competency-based education, is not an overly new concept; however, it has gained a great deal of traction in the higher education realm during the recent decade. It has evolved from early vocational education models to more robust and complex approaches to learning in higher education. This instructional method builds on what students already know, and when implemented correctly, enhances student engagement in an efficient and cost effective manner.

According to The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), CBE and PLA occupy intersecting spaces on a competency continuum. They are ideal companion tools that help postsecondary programs focus on student learning while being highly flexible and student centered. If your institution is considering a new program or academic service to create a learning environment where student education is maximized and student needs are met, the Texas A&M University System encourages you and your team to familiarize yourself with CBE and PLA structures to become more aware of the alternative methods that exist to provide educational opportunities and student support in modern higher education.

SACSCOC/EAB: Competency-based education programs are an outcomes-based approach to earning a college degree or credential, whereby academic credit is awarded for the mastery of clearly defined competencies rather than time spent learning. Competencies are statements of what students can do as a result of their learning at an institution of higher education. The curriculum is structured around these specified competencies, and satisfactory academic progress is expressed as the attainment or mastery of the identified competencies (where mastery performance is considered to be very good or excellent).

Course/Credit-based approach – programs that enroll students in traditional academic terms and award credits for courses successfully completed, where the demonstration of competencies is embedded into a conventional curriculum comprised of courses to be completed to earn credits toward a degree or credential. Student is awarded credit and specific competencies.

Direct Assessment approach – represents a subset of competency-based education not based on semesters or credits. This approach disregards conventional courses and bases both the evaluation of student achievement and the award of a degree or credential solely on the demonstration of competencies, a process determined by each student’s self-set pace. Student is awarded competencies attained.

Hybrid approach – blended model of both course/credit and direct assessment approach. This program allows a student to complete a degree or credential through a combination of direct assessment of competencies and credit hour based courses.

PLA Definition: Prior Learning Assessment is a strategy that evaluates nontraditional student learning experiences for academic credit. This can include various portfolios or prior learning assessments. (*When PLA is integrated into a traditional program, SOCSCOC approval is not needed.)

PLA Assessments resemble: The College Board’s Advanced Placement Examinations and College Level Examination Program; DANTES Subject Standardized Tests; and Excelsior College’s ECE – Nursing Theory & UExcel Exams

Components that should be included in an institution’s PLA policy:

– Inform Campus Stakeholders

Explain the purpose and scope of PLA at your institution

Supply definitions for prior learning terminology

– Provide How-To Instruction

Detail PLA procedures and protocols

Establish training requirements for faculty assessors

– Guide Program Regulation and Management

Lay out leadership structure, responsibilities, and program review policies and processes

Present a collection of prior learning best practices


For additional information on programs and services to address degree completion, please visit the SACSCOC website to review applicable policy statements.

For additional public information from the Education Advisory Board focused on degree completion, please visit their webpage to review CBE program assessments.

For additional information on competency based education issues, please visit The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.


The Texas A&M University System regulation checklist for potential CBE proposals.

The following presentation links provide additional information about CBE and PLA programs: