The state’s community-college system is planning to offer an all-online, competency-based associate degree in business that students could earn at home in 18 months — or even earlier, if they’ve already earned some college credits.

All credits earned through the program would be transferable to a Washington public four-year college — providing a short track to a bachelor’s in business administration. The program is designed for adults who already have been working for a few years and have experience to draw from.

If the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) approves the plan in June, as is expected, the state’s community-college system would become a pioneer in the field of all-online, competency-based degrees, along with the University of Wisconsin system, which already offers them.

The degree would also be the fastest and least expensive route to an associate degree ever offered by a Washington public college.

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“The student will earn a transcript that will look like a regular college transcript,” said Jan Yoshiwara, deputy executive director for education at SBCTC. “What’s different is the mode of delivery.”

Competency-based degrees give students a chance to earn credit for what they already know how to do. A student who can demonstrate that he or she has strong writing skills, for example, could skip over parts of an English-composition course. In some courses, a student would take a test to prove he or she has already mastered parts of the subject; in others, the student may complete an assignment, Yoshiwara said.

“We’re going to encourage students to take as many classes as they can handle,” Yoshiwara said, because the program “is intended to be an acceleration program.”

Competency-based degrees are not without their critics.

Some community-college faculty members fear that teaching students who are moving at a different pace over a six-month period would end up being more work for the faculty, said Karen Strickland, president of the American Federation of Teachers Washington, the union that represents many of the state’s community-college faculty.

If students are grouped together and move through a course in tandem, one instructor can teach a larger class; but if all the students are working independently, the class size may need to be smaller, Strickland said.

The U.S. Department of Education has encouraged
public colleges and universities to begin offering competency degrees as a way to help more students gain college degrees.

The U.S. was once a world leader in the percentage of its adults with college degrees. But that’s changed — not because fewer Americans are going to college, but because global competitors have caught up, and in some cases, surpassed the U.S.

And many experts say that more jobs of the future are going to require training beyond a high-school degree.

Students who take a full load of classes would be eligible for both federal and state financial aid, and tuition for a six-month term would be $2,666, the equivalent of taking 15 credits for two quarters. That figure does not include fees, which would vary depending on the college offering the program.

As of yet, it’s not clear which of the state’s 34 community and technical colleges would offer the degree.

Since the courses would all be online, location wouldn’t be important; a student could choose to enroll in any one of the colleges that offers the degree, Yoshiwara said. Faculty members from that school would teach the course, and the degree would be conferred by that college.

The degree would include classes in English composition, lab science, accounting, economics, business calculus, public speaking, political science, sociology and statistics.

Washington community colleges already teach those subjects online — even lab science, which involves using a kit to do experiments at home, and public speaking, in which students record themselves giving speeches.

SBCTC received help in the design of its program from Western Governors University-Washington, the state affiliate of Western Governors University, a 17-year-old nonprofit which offers competency-based bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Competency-based education is “a remarkably logical way to reach students,” said Jean Floten, chancellor of WGU-Washington and formerly the president of Bellevue College. “It recognizes what you already know and do, and allows education to be quite accelerated.”

She described it as the perfect model for midcareer working adults who can study and complete assignments at night or on weekends. “It’s well-suited to people who have a clear goal in mind, and are self-motivated, and can navigate technology in an independent setting.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.