By Dinesh Ramde
MILWAUKEE — The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee will become the first school in the UW System to offer a so-called flexible degree, in which students will be able to earn college credit for knowledge already gained through work or life experience, university officials said Wednesday.
The program is designed to cater to nontraditional students such as working adults, military veterans and those who left school early without enough credits for a degree. Students will be able to earn credits outside the classroom by demonstrating knowledge from their real-world experience or taking online courses — even those offered by other academic institutions.
A number of UW schools are planning flexible options for their degree programs. The furthest along is UW-Milwaukee, which will begin offering degree programs this fall in nursing, diagnostic imaging and information science, as well as a certificate program in communications.
“I have every confidence that we can provide a very rewarding, highly personalized learning experience for the students who choose this new pathway,” according to a statement attributed to UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Michael Lovell.
The 13 two-year UW colleges also will provide courses for general education and liberal arts in the new flexible-option format. The courses will be in core fields such as science, engineering, business and English.
One of the largest two-year schools, UW-Fox Valley in Menasha, said it will offer six bachelor’s degrees in collaboration with four-year UW universities. Students who take flex classes at UWFox could end up with bachelor’s degrees in engineering from UW-Platteville or in management from UW-Stout.
The UW effort is part of a growing nationwide trend in which universities seek to improve access to education for people who might not fit the traditional mold. Some high school graduates go into the military or the workforce, or they leave school without enough credits to graduate. After several years pass, they might think their chance to get a college degree has passed them by.
School officials are optimistic that nontraditional students will be intrigued by the option of taking classes at their own pace and by getting credit for information they might have learned elsewhere. For example, a military veteran with plenty of leadership experience might get college credit for a management class by passing an assessment test.
The target audience is adults — those who want to advance in their current careers and those who are unemployed and need to freshen their skills.
“Increasing the number of college graduates will strengthen our local economy by meeting the needs of employers for qualified employees,” said Martin Rudd, the dean at UWFox.
A number of details remain to be worked out, such as the cost of flex courses. Ray Cross, the chancellor of University of Wisconsin Colleges & Extension, predicted the new program would be substantially cheaper because the university’s role would only involve assessing the students’ skills, not providing instruction as well.
“That will greatly reduce your cost,” he said.
Even though some of the instruction would come from elsewhere, officials emphasized that UW faculty will oversee the academic quality of the flexible-option programs to make sure they meet UW’s standards. For example, Cross said, the assessments in the nursing programs likely would involve tests in a clinical setting, not just paper-and-pencil multiple choice tests.
Another feature of the flex option is self-paced learning. Courses will be broken down into segments, and as students learn the relevant information for each segment, whether from a UW video or from other online sources, they’ll take UW’s competency test for that segment.
That’s the main difference from other online classes. Usually a student gets credit only at the end after passing the class. In this case, students will start accumulating credit after completing each segment.
“This is a new direction in American higher education,” UW System President Kevin Reilly said, “and Wisconsin is at the forefront.”