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You might have mistaken Friday’s Wall Street Journal headline for one of those late-night TV commercials about going to college in your pajamas: “College Degree, No Class Time Required.” But this wasn’t an expose on diploma mills. Rather, it was a look at how the University of Wisconsin’s newest degree option, the so-called “flexible degree” or “UW Flex,” could have far-reaching implications for higher education in that state.
What’s special about “UW Flex?” It’s the latest entry in the emerging movement toward “competency-based” higher education. Don’t let the clunky name fool you: This is innovative stuff. Instead of providing credits based on the amount of time a student spends in class (“credit hours”), students in a competency-based program earn credit by proving what they’ve learned. There aren’t “courses” in the traditional sense, but assessments of specific competencies in a given subject area. Students prepare for these assessments by accessing course materials and interacting with mentors, and they can take the assessments at their own pace. This frees students to move quickly through some subjects while spending more time on others.
This isn’t a new idea, but it has picked up steam of late. Western Governors University, a non-profit set up by 19 governors in the mid-1990s, has been operating a competency-based model for years, serving mostly adult students who have some credits but no degree. The average age of a WGU student is 36, and the average time to a BA is 2.5 years. Leaders in Indiana, Washington, and Texas recently invited WGU into their state to set up state branches. UW Flex will be a “homegrown” version of this model, offering degrees in information technology, nursing, and diagnostic imaging to start.
Since Governor Scott Walker announced UW Flex this past June, reactions have ranged from enthusiastic support to “well-warranted suspicion” on the part of Wisconsin faculty.
Skepticism of new ideas is healthy. But in higher education, variety is met with an age-old conceit: Critics argue that new postsecondary models must prove they’re of the same “quality” as the traditional campus, even though we don’t actually measure higher education quality in a way that would allow us to compare the two. As one faculty member from the flagship campus told the Journal:
“There has got to be very rigorous documentation that it lives up to the quality of that name,” said Mark Cook, an animal-sciences professor and chairman of the university committee for the faculty senate at the Madison campus.
Professor Cook is exactly right: New models of postsecondary education should be rigorously evaluated. The more we experiment with and study new approaches, the more we’ll learn about what models work best for which types of students.
But what exactly are we comparing them to? What’s in “the quality of that name?” Is it a measure of how much students learn while they’re on a UW campus (so called “value-added”)? Or perhaps how successful those students are once they graduate when compared to similarly situated peers? And how should we think about benefits in relation to the costs of attendance, particularly when UW Flex will reportedly be “significantly less expensive?” Without answers to these questions, leaders will be hard-pressed to determine whether UW Flex deserves a spot in the state’s higher education portfolio.
Here’s hoping that the researchers tasked with studying UW Flex put their money where their mouth is by defining and assessing quality across different types of providers—traditional and nontraditional alike. Faculty members have every right to be wary of new public investments in promising yet unproven models. But they should also resist the temptation to hold new ideas up to an ill-defined, I-know-it-when-I-see-it vision of higher education quality.
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