Like many adults, Wendi Thomas wanted to re­turn to school to con­tin­ue her educa­tion, but she simply couldn’t find the time.

As the 47-year-old mar­ried moth­er of two teen­agers, ages 16 and 19, she shuttled back and forth between home and work, between moth­er­ing and her career. And her job was not ex­actly low-key. As the nurs­ing dir­ect­or for crit­ic­al care and emer­gency ser­vices at a North­ern Cali­for­nia hos­pit­al, she of­ten logs 60 hours of work per week. “I have kids and a full-time job,” she says. “How could I in­cor­por­ate school in­to my life?”

Then, a col­league in health care told Thomas about a not-for-profit uni­versity that al­lows people to earn bach­el­or’s and mas­ter’s de­grees on­line. Even bet­ter, the pro­gram tests stu­dents on their ex­ist­ing know­ledge, or com­pet­ency, in vari­ous fields and al­lows them to skip a course if they can demon­strate a mas­tery of the sub­ject.

So, in the fall of 2013, Thomas en­rolled in West­ern Gov­ernors Uni­versity. She has found it an ideal solu­tion. It al­lowed her to work to­ward a mas­ter’s de­gree while tak­ing in­to ac­count the know­ledge she has ac­cu­mu­lated in her 20 years as a nurse. The pro­gram also let her take classes at her own pace and com­plete les­sons at night and on week­ends. And, it was a bar­gain. She fin­ished her B.A. (she already held an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree) and in Feb­ru­ary com­pleted her mas­ter’s of science in nurs­ing lead­er­ship, all for just $20,000 in tu­ition.

“If I had had to be in a classroom every Tues­day night at 6 p.m., I nev­er would have made it,” she says. “I really felt like I needed something that would al­low me the flex­ib­il­ity.”

West­ern Gov­ernors Uni­versity is one of nearly three dozen col­leges and pro­grams—non­profit and for-profit alike—that are try­ing a fledgling mod­el of school­ing known as com­pet­ency-based edu­ca­tion. Its core idea: Stu­dents fare bet­ter if they earn de­grees based on their demon­strated know­ledge of a sub­ject in­stead of simply on face-time or per­form­ance in a tra­di­tion­al classroom.

“It ba­sic­ally means that we will meas­ure learn­ing rather than time,” says Robert W. Mend­en­hall, pres­id­ent of West­ern Gov­ernors Uni­versity. “Com­pet­ency-based learn­ing means stu­dents can learn at their own pace.”

West­ern Gov­ernors Uni­versity was one of the pi­on­eers. In the mid-1990s, a number of gov­ernors from West­ern states wanted to give res­id­ents bet­ter and cheap­er ac­cess to high­er edu­ca­tion, which can be daunt­ing in rur­al or less-pop­u­lated areas. The gov­ernors wanted to take ad­vant­age of tech­no­logy to cre­ate an institution of high­er edu­ca­tion that lets stu­dents ad­vance based on know­ledge and abil­ity, one that uses tech­no­logy to de­liv­er this edu­ca­tion in in­nov­at­ive ways. Grow­ing num­bers of res­id­ents who hold col­lege de­grees, they hoped, would attract busi­nesses.

The uni­versity opened its elec­tron­ic doors in 1999 and now teaches 60,000 students na­tion­wide in all 50 states; an­oth­er 50,000 have gradu­ated. The rates of com­ple­tion are one area in which uni­versity of­fi­cials would like to im­prove. Accord­ing to WGU, roughly 40 per­cent of its stu­dents com­plete their de­gree with­in six years. That’s only two-thirds as many as for stu­dents at four-year institu­tions, ac­cord­ing to fed­er­al Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment data.

These schools face a demo­graph­ic chal­lenge: Most of the people who en­roll are non­tra­di­tion­al stu­dents, like Thomas, who must also juggle the de­mands of work and fam­ily. Two-thirds of WGU stu­dents work full-time; their av­er­age age is 37. Al­most all of them went to col­lege earli­er but dropped out. Many are un­der­served stu­dents, Mend­en­hall notes—from minor­ity groups, rur­al areas, poor house­holds, or fam­il­ies new to col­lege—who face obstacles in earn­ing a de­gree. “We keep mak­ing changes in the mod­el and cur­riculum to make stu­dents more suc­cess­ful,” he says.

One of WGU’s tac­tics is to as­sign each stu­dent a ment­or, who checks in every week or two by phone or email and advises which classes to take. Each course also of­fers a ment­or for strug­gling stu­dents, in ad­di­tion to the fac­ulty mem­bers who grade pa­pers and tests. And, stu­dents learn on­line through a vari­ety of meth­ods: we­binars, mul­ti­me­dia present­a­tions, video lec­tures, and read­ings, with professors avail­able for ques­tions on­line and by email. Students take tests either in proctored test­ing cen­ters or on­line, with some tests mon­itored by web­cam.

WGU tries to keep costs low. Stu­dents pay roughly $6,000 in an­nu­al tu­ition, which al­lows them to take as many classes as they like dur­ing the year; edu­ca­tion ex­perts liken it to a Net­flix sub­scrip­tion, which lets you watch un­lim­ited movies for a monthly fee. WGU can un­der­cut the tu­ition at tra­di­tion­al col­leges be­cause it lacks a phys­ic­al cam­pus and of­fers de­grees in only four subjects—teach­ing, nurs­ing, busi­ness, and in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy. The school boasts about 2,300 fac­ulty mem­bers; 500 of them hold a Ph.D. or an equi­val­ent de­gree, while oth­ers have cer­ti­fic­a­tions in the sub­ject they teach, such as accounting.

“We only do a few things at high volume—it is a lot less ex­pens­ive to de­vel­op cur­riculum in just four areas,” Mend­en­hall says. “It is an en­tire re-think­ing of the busi­ness mod­el.”

Com­pet­ency-based high­er edu­ca­tion has its pit­falls. The all-you-can-en­roll-in nature of the classes makes tu­ition cheap­er only if stu­dents move through the course load at a nor­mal pace. If they fall be­hind or take just a couple of courses a year, it can cost them as much as a reg­u­lar col­lege. WGU qual­i­fies for fed­er­al finan­cial aid, but not all of the com­pet­ency-based pro­grams do, ac­cord­ing to research by Robert Kelchen, an as­sist­ant pro­fess­or of high­er edu­ca­tion at Seton Hall Uni­versity.

For stu­dents like Thomas, however, the com­pet­ency-based mod­el gave her a path­way to con­tin­ue her edu­ca­tion without sac­ri­fi­cing her work or too much family time. WGU ac­cep­ted cred­its from her as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree in nurs­ing and imme­di­ately gave her cred­it for four of her 25 courses, based on tests of her existing know­ledge. “This al­lowed me to not waste my time and en­ergy on subjects I already know,” she says. One of those was health care fin­ance, which Thomas has learned on the job by run­ning $5 mil­lion-a-year budgets in the emer­gency room.

Best of all, a mas­ter’s from WGU will help her fu­ture. It en­titles her to a high­er salary as a nurse (typ­ic­ally, by 5 to 7 per­cent) and sets her up for more lead­er­ship po­s­i­tions at her hos­pit­al. She has re­com­men­ded the ex­per­i­ence to three oth­er nurses there.