A Charter School for the University of Wisconsin? Questions about the new UW Flexible Degree Program

Two events, each with potentially great repercussions for public higher education, came out of the blue last week. While one – the ouster of the President of the University of Virginia – was closely followed nationally and on this campus, the other – the announcement of a “flexible degree” model offered through UW-System/ Extension that, in the words of the Governor’s office, “will transform higher education in Wisconsin” received somewhat less attention than one might expect.

And yet the similarities are striking.  In both cases, changes in education at a renowned public university are supposed to be implemented virtually overnight to fix a host of vaguely defined problems.  And in both cases, the magic cure is to be found in online teaching and in other unspecified educational technologies.

According to the June 19 email announcement from the Governor’s Office, “the UW Flexible degree program will already be available online as soon as fall of this year.”

So what is this program? And how can something billed as transformative be implemented over just a few summer months?  How will it affect the UW campuses and statewide post-secondary public education?

I tried to find answers in the twelve-page “detailed summary [PDF]” provided by the Governor’s office.

The pamphlet includes all the catch-phrases that have been used across the country, including at UVA, to describe the ills of public universities: they are not reacting fast enough to a rapidly changing global world; they are inefficient and inflexible; they don’t keep up with the needs of “today’s students” and employers; they are too costly.

More specifically, the pamphlet states that …

  1. This new degree will allow “Wisconsin workers to learn practical skills leading to family supporting employment” and “adult learners to complete their degrees without having to set foot on campus.”
  2. “UW System will work with faculty, students and employers to identify the courses of study most needed in Wisconsin. Current workforce data identifies Business and Management, Healthcare, and IT.”
  3. Classes taken for the degree will be conducted online and “exams can be taken from home or from work.” Rather than lengthy courses, small modules will be designed “to contain only the knowledge required within a specific competency.”  Coursework and assessment will be “overseen” by UW faculty or academic staff.
  4. The program will give students credit for knowledge they previously acquired, no matter how or where.
  5. The program will be affordable: “Leaders from across the state have agreed to collaborate and make this model of education as affordable as possible without sacrificing quality.”
  6. The program will strengthen the UW System, and UW campuses will be invited to increase their reach and build new revenue streams.

I am all in favor of affordable practical education. Indeed, as someone who had to interrupt a degree program and who later struggled to get additional credit at high cost at a different institution, I also appreciate the notion of competency based evaluation.  But in this case, I am left mostly with questions.

  1. Why is this program implemented within the UW-System?  Aren’t Wisconsin’s technical colleges providing this type of practical education?  They have continuously improved their approach to teaching non-traditional learners by, among other methods, using online courses.
  2. Who are the faculty, students, departments, and employers that are working to identify these courses, and what is their approach?  What specific degree programs will be offered?
  3. Who actually develops the coursework and assessments that are “overseen” by UW faculty and academic staff?  Who provides the content?
  4. What are the admission criteria for this program?  Who creates and administers the competency test and how?
  5. What does “affordable” mean?  The pamphlet states that “even in Wisconsin […] college tuition rates have outpaced inflation in recent decades.” Not mentioned is the fact that the rise in college tuition is a directly linked to the decrease of state support, especially in the past year.  The document includes no numbers whatsoever about how this program is to be financed and what participating students will have to pay.  It seems a student will save money mainly by reducing her/his formal education. Traditional financial aid sources are mentioned, too. But who are “those leaders from across the state?”  How will they collaborate to make the model affordable?Interestingly, the pamphlet does not promise any benefit for the taxpayer. On the contrary: “[the model] may require additional state investment in the UW System. State leaders are committed to achieving this goal without drawing aid away from traditional students at UW campuses.”
  6. Which campuses will be invited to “increase their reach” and in what way?

With so many unanswered questions, the inquiring mind begins to wander.

The pamphlet points out that “similar options are offered through other institutions outside the state, such as Western Governors University,” but that “some states who added WGU satellites created direct competition to their state university system.” At the same time, documents listed as references are from groups that heavily favor a private angle and even for-profit angle (Lumina Foundation, Center for College Affordability).

Will it be a private company that provides the curriculum and assessment for the new flexible degree program? What other sectors of the University system could be parceled out in this fashion?  Will public university systems (be forced to) go the path of the charter school movement in public K-12 education, in which public money is siphoned out the public schools and put into the pockets of private providers?

One overriding final question: Why the rush?

Americans for generations have seen education as the ticket for personal advancement. Private secondary education has financially always been out of reach for most Americans, but the nation’s public colleges and universities provided access to top-notch education. Alas, for several years now, for many families “public” has not been synonymous with “affordable” anymore. Nevertheless, Americans still believed enough in the dream of upward mobility through education that they went into deep debt for it.

Now with increasing numbers of graduates finding themselves un- or underemployed, but strapped with huge debts, the enthusiasm for higher education at any cost is disappearing fast. Particular blame has fallen on private for-profits. At the same time, online courses from highly respected universities provide “competencies” already for free.

If you’re Scott Walker, what better time to give private companies a boost by opening up the taxpayer-supported education market?

– A Taxpayer for Public Education

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One Response to A Charter School for the University of Wisconsin? Questions about the new UW Flexible Degree Program

  1. Frank Rojas says:

    I am with the skeptics on this. Lots of promises and few answers. Is this another unfunded mandate typical of government low on funds? What exactly is the demand and actual value of such a degree? Are employers ready to line up for some generic UW System degree? Or is just another dubious credential of little/no real value? Has anyone analyzed the real value of such degrees to date? How do they compare to more traditional colleges?

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