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Our View: UW flex degrees will help Wisconsin move forward

12:41 PM, Feb. 21, 2013  |  Comments
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University of Wisconsin Colleges are doing something new, and if it works, it will be a way of boosting the state's overall educational attainment - and with it, maybe, its economic fortunes.

Members of the Daily Herald Editorial Board recently met with UW Colleges Chancellor Ray Cross, who discussed the system's new flex degree program. It is a model that goes well beyond migrating classwork onto the Internet. It actually breaks apart a number of ways that we think about how higher education is delivered, and in ways that could be especially beneficial to working adult students.

There are no semesters. In some cases, there might not even be coursework. The system is "competency-based," Cross said, meaning it will allow students to demonstrate their skill levels through testing. They'll receive academic coaching and counseling, but the onus will be on them to do the work, and to that end they'll be connected with various resources, not a single textbook or course.

Who will this system fit best? Probably not 18-year-old college beginners who want to receive a broad, liberal arts education.

But there are a huge number of Wisconsinites - a stunning 20 percent of all adults in the state, according to the UW System - who have experience with college but no degree. That group of people also is very likely to have amassed experience in the workplace and perhaps even within a technical field.

But they're also likely being held back, economically, by the fact that they don't have a degree.

The flex degree is being rolled out in several technical fields where Wisconsin needs a more educated workforce and where these types of candidates are likely to exist. These are health care, information technology and business and management.

Cross said the program might not work for all majors. And there is some risk that the program's availability will "water down" the recognized quality of UW degrees in the marketplace - though this risk seems to us largely overstated.

But overall, this is an experiment worth trying, and one with real potential to help Wisconsinites get credit for the skills they have and build their careers in turn.

What stood out to us in our interview with Cross, as well as in our recent interview with UW-Stevens Point Chancellor Bernie Patterson, is that new reforms are making the system more flexible, more accessible and, perhaps, more competitive. With the rise of online courses and private, for-profit colleges, the marketplace for higher education has never been more crowded. The colleges and universities of the UW System still offer services no other outlet can - but it's good, and necessary, for them to experiment with different approaches and new ways of reaching students.

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