University absorbs cost of missing federal aid for online program

The University of Wisconsin (UW) System’s new and much-touted Flexible Option online degree program launched last week without the federal financial aid promised to students.

A University of Wisconsin student studies on her laptop.

UW System officials acknowledged that they knew about the issue privately for months but forged ahead because they thought it would be resolved before the launch.

Three weeks ago, with the matter still up in the air, they decided to absorb the cost of financial assistance that students would normally qualify for under federal rules.

The in-house financial assistance will continue until the issue is ironed out with the U.S. Department of Education, according to UW System officials.

A UW System degree through the online program could cost more than $20,000 for some students, depending on how long it takes them to complete it. Many could not afford it without federal financial aid.

There are no guarantees that the federal aid will become available, but UW Extension Interim Provost Aaron Brower described it as a short-term issue that he’s confident can be worked out within the next three to six months.

The Flex program’s core staff and the directors of financial aid offices at UW-Milwaukee and UW Colleges have been working on the issue the past six to eight months, Brower said Friday. UW-Milwaukee and UW Colleges are the first in the UW System to offer degrees in the flexible format.

The Flex program was approved in July by the accrediting Higher Learning Commission.

But the U.S. Department of Education did not give the green light for federal financial aid funds to be awarded to the program’s students.

That’s because the Flex program — the first of its kind for a U.S. public university system — doesn’t meet financial aid regulations for traditional term- or non-term-based programs, in which students can demonstrate satisfactory academic progress toward a degree based on credits earned within an academic year.

The new UW degree program does not award credits or have an academic year; it measures student success by mastery of competencies specific to each degree, and students can enroll the first of any month for three-month “subscription periods.”

“We were trying to fit the square peg into the round hole — trying to get Flex to look enough like a traditional program,” Brower said.

About three weeks ago, “we determined that this just wasn’t going to work, that the accumulation of changes we’d have to make to Flex would have changed it too significantly,” Brower said.

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