This fall, University of Wisconsin students will be able to enroll in a new degree plan that could help them graduate faster and spend less money to get their diplomas. In announcing the plan last month, Gov. Scott Walker hailed the new program as a game-changer for higher education, in his state and around the country.
The University of Wisconsin System's Flexible Degree will use both online and traditional college courses, allowing students to start classes in their own time, learn at their own pace and earn credit for knowledge and skills they already have. It promises to lower net tuition costs through five avenues: an online, competency-based model; accelerated time to completion; federal, state and private grants; workforce development grants; and employer-sponsored grants or forgivable loans.
The degree model is based on smaller course segments or "modules" that are oriented around a specific level of competency, rather than a set timeframe.
Critics say this type of degree could devalue collegiate credentials if special measures are not made to keep academics rigorous. They also say such drastic change could destroy university systems if those leading innovation are too closely tied to traditional degree programs. But education experts who advocate for innovation in higher education say flexible degree plans done well could make college degrees more affordable and more accessible, goals most educators agree are vital for America's economic future.
Essentially, the model reinvents the idea of testing out of college classes. Students can gain credit for a course or module as soon as they demonstrate college-level proficiency in the given course material by taking "competency exams." The knowledge to test out of a course or module could be learned through previous schooling, time in the workplace or personal study, making the degree program as cheap, fast and personalized as the student chooses to make it, advocates say.
Several other states, including Indiana, Texas and Washington, have similar flexible degree options, offered through a partnership with Western Governors University. But those programs create competition for their partner schools, rather than supporting them, proponents of the University of Wisconsin's program say. Because it is part of the state university system, Wisconsin's program will benefit all the state's students, not just those who don't want to participate in a traditional college degree plan, proponents say.
The University of Wisconsin System expects to make the program available to its students online this fall and hopes eventually to expand the program internationally, increasing the school's enrollment and income.
As flexible degree programs become more common, cutting the traditional time and cost for students to gain a degree and bringing in more revenue for schools, experts say the whole system of higher education could change in as little as a decade.
"Upstart institutions are perfecting radically new education technologies … at the same time that young people and their parents are becoming more frustrated with the traditional higher-ed model," said Stuart Butler, director of the Center for Policy Innovation at the Heritage Foundation, in a recent blog post. "There is every reason to suspect that, quite soon, these new institutions will do to higher education what Sony did to radios and Apple did to computing."Such a transformation could have profound effects on American international competitiveness, employability of America's lower income workers and the reality of the American Dream, Butler said.
Jane Shaw, president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, applauds the innovation that Walker's flexible degree proposal, and others like it, bring to higher education, but notes two reservations.
Competency based education might end up being too easy, Shaw said. If tests aren't as difficult as they should be, students will be able to pass courses and modules without really doing rigorous work.
And while UW officials tout their program's direct ties to the state schools, Shaw fears the connection may actually keep it from being as innovative as it needs to be to succeed. Programs that completely change an organization's basic approach need to be autonomous to be successful, she said. Based on examples of innovation set by other industries, the new flexible degree program should be independent from other parts of the university.
"In business, when you really have this major change - and online education can really be that - it can destroy organizations," Shaw said. "For example, when the personal computer came out, it really did destroy some major producers of big computers like BEC and WANG, and only IBM survived. The way it survived was by creating a completely different organization in Florida, separate from most of its operations in New York, that was able to create the PC and make that a business."
This kind of separation, between an original organization and it's hybrid program, allows the new program to innovate and change rather than be sucked back into the traditional methods of the mother institution.
Despite her concerns, Shaw applauds the basic principles of Walker's proposal. Competency-based, move-at-your-own-pace and low cost degree plans can be implemented elsewhere and have the potential to impact higher education in a major way, she said.
"Universities tend to have a lot of tradition and be somewhat hide bound, and whether they can cope with such change is really an unanswered question," Shaw said. "Certainly some schools will and I think that higher education is poised on the brink of quite a bit of change, but no one exactly knows how it will happen."