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.

Now, the Department of Education is being asked to approve financial aid for Flex just as it’s constructed — rather than trying to squeeze it into something it’s not, Brower said.

In the interim, some of the $8 million in UW System funds earmarked to launch the Flexible Option degree program will be used as in-house financial assistance, Brower said.

“Our commitment is, until approval comes through, we will provide financial assistance to students up to the full cost of tuition, based on their need as established by standard, need-based processes,” Brower said.

The form used to determine federal financial aid eligibility is being used in the interim by the UW System to determine eligibility for UW financial assistance, he said.

If it took six months to work out the financial aid snag, and all 250 students enrolled by then required assistance to cover their entire tuition, the maximum amount the UW System would award in unplanned financial assistance during that time would be about $1 million.

The UW expects the program to be self-supporting through tuition within three to five years.

Buffet vs. a la carte

The Flex Option offers three-month “subscription periods” during which students can access learning materials, receive academic support and complete competency tests.

For each subscription period, students can choose between an “all-you-can-learn” option for $2,250, in which they try to master as many skill sets — and pass as many assessments — as they can, or a “single competency-set” option for $900, which allows them to focus on mastering one skill set.

It’s sort of the academic version of a buffet vs. a la carte, consumed at one’s own pace. A typical degree will require mastering eight to 15 competency sets under the flexible program. The competencies and assessments for each degree will be determined by UW faculty, who also will handle grading.

Thursday was the launch day for the first 40 students in four of the five flexible degree programs offered through UW-Milwaukee and UW Colleges. The fifth program doesn’t launch until March 3. Additional programs in the flexible format are expected to be announced by other campuses over the next few years.

Each of the current programs accepted only 10 students to start this month. Additional students will be added the first of each month as the program ramps up. Students can enroll at the first of any month, year-round.

UW officials have said that if just one-third of the 700,000 to 1 million Wisconsin adults who have some college credit could earn a degree, it would significantly raise the state’s number of college graduates. Currently, 26 percent of Wisconsin adults have a degree; the national average is 28 percent.

©2014 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, distributed by MCT Information Services

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