A new competency-based business degree offered by Washington community colleges will allow students to skip material they've already mastered.

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A handful of Washington community colleges have launched a new program that allows people to earn a business degree entirely online, at a sped-up pace.

The business associate degree has a number of unique features: It’s competency-based, so students who have some business or work experience can get credit for what they already know. It’s self-paced, so students who work hard can earn a two-year degree in as little as 18 months. It uses open-source curriculum materials such as online textbooks, so there are no books to buy. And it’s guaranteed to transfer into Washington’s four-year public colleges and universities.

It is the first competency-based degree offered by a Washington public college. The program is modeled after Western Governors University, an all-online, nonprofit college, which lent its expertise to the development of the program.

And the work is rigorous, says Rich Cummins, the president of Columbia Basin College in Pasco, who chaired the committee that created the degree. At Columbia Basin, 10 faculty members are teaching the program, most of whom are full-time. Students will also be assigned a completion coach, who will check in at least once a week to see how they’re doing.

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One term lasts two quarters, and students are required to sign up for a minimum 20 credit-hours a term. But Cummins said it’s kind of like an all-you-can-eat buffet — some students might be able to take 50 or 60 credit hours in a term, especially if they already have business knowledge. And regardless of how many credits on a student’s schedule, the tuition is fixed at $2,600 a term, including textbook materials.

He offered this example of how the competency-based degree might work for a student with bookkeeping experience: The student would start by taking an assessment of the material she already knew. If she got 80 percent or more of the answers correct, she could go on to the next topic, or “knowledge objective.” But if she scored too low to pass, the instructor would go through the assessment and figure out the holes in her knowledge. Going forward, the student would only have to learn the material she didn’t know.

Cummins described the program as a targeted business degree — it’s designed for students who want to transfer into a four-year Washington public college and finish their bachelor’s in business. All the credits will transfer and count toward a business degree, giving students status as juniors when they transfer.

“It’s a great deal,” he said, noting that financial aid is also available for students who qualify. “And it has rigor and quality. It will prepare you for the next level of the game, if you decide to transfer.”

Columbia Basin is the lead institution, but the degree is also being offered at Everett and Tacoma community colleges, as well as Centralia, Pierce and Olympic colleges (two-year public colleges that have dropped “community” from their names). Eventually, it will be offered at all 34 of the state’s community and technical colleges, he said.

Since it’s all-online, students can register through any college that offers it, Cummins said. But registering at a college close to home means being able to access that school’s library and other resources.