Students at the University of Wisconsin (UW) can earn college degrees based on proven competency in a subject, making UW the first publicly-funded school to launch a competency-based degree program.
Led by officials at UW-Extension, a continued learning program with offices located across Wisconsin, the UW Flexible Degree will let incoming students demonstrate their knowledge and cut down on the time it takes to earn a degree.
UW Chancellor Ray Cross and Gov. Scott Walker unveiled the Flexible Degree program June 19 as a way to help Wisconsinites boost their education credentials and fill empty jobs that require a two-or-four-year degree.
Students who enroll in UW’s nontraditional degree program could receive financial help from federal and state grants and employer-sponsored grants. Employers involved in the Flexible Degree program will also help recent graduates pay back loans used to fund their education.
While competency-based learning isn’t new—Western Governors University (WGU) has used the model for years—UW’s embrace of the nontraditional online degree track is noteworthy because, unlike the private nonprofit WGU and for-profit online colleges, UW is a public campus.
Offering more flexible options for adults returning the school, Cross said, would help the unemployed and underemployed fill some of the tens of thousands of open jobs just waiting for qualified applicants.
“We know now which features and benefits many adult students want. Our goal is to address these needs in new ways, but we can only achieve that goal by efficiently leveraging all the UW System’s resources in a truly collaborative fashion,” Cross said.
About 20 percent of Wisconsin adults have some postsecondary course credit, according to state statistics. These adults, if enrolled in the new competency-based model, would not have to begin their higher education in the most basic classes, saving them money and time.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor of education policy studies at UW, wrote in a blog post that a competency-based approach was worth the investment, because “credit for sitting in a seat for a certain amount of time has never felt smart.”
“One way to ensure quality is pushed higher is to encourage the kinds of students who now take in-person courses to try out these online classes, perhaps in summer, and have them … respond with their demands,” Goldrick-Rab wrote. “They will help raise the bar and keep standards high. In other words, diverse online classes of learners, rather than segregated ones, will ensure the quality of instruction.”