About 800,000 Wisconsin residents have taken college courses but have not completed a degree. To help them, the University of Wisconsin System launched a program about a year and a half ago, called the Flexible Option.
The program allows students to earn college credit for demonstrating what they’ve learned on their own. They work at their own pace. The UW System was the first public university system to offer such a program.
Craig Kilgo was one of the early Flexible Option students. He lives in the Washington, D.C. area, and learned about plans for the program in the newspaper.
"There was a Wall Street Journal article in the summer of 2013 about a pilot program that they were doing, and it sounded like exactly the type of program that I would need in order to complete my degree," Kilgo says.
Kilgo works for the Department of Defense. He says it would have taken years to get his degree sitting in a classroom, taking three credits a semester. But through the online Flexible Option UWM offers, he graduated in a year and a half polishing off more than 60 credits. Kilgo credits "the ability to just have all the assignments available to you." He says, "You read through them all, you start chugging through them, you finish when you finish, and then you move on to the next course, the next day, the next hour, or the next minute, if you'd like."
Kilgo's degree is in Information Science and Technology. It's one of seven Flexible Option degrees or certificates that certain UW schools offer.
While some participating students are from out of state, Cathy Sandeen says 80 percent are from Wisconsin. Sandeen is chancellor of UW-Extension, which administers the program. Sandeen says about 500 students are enrolled in the Flexible Option -- about twice what was predicted by this point.
"The most highly enrolled programs right now are the Bachelor of Science in Nursing and the Bachelor of Science in Information Science and Technology," Sandeen says.
The UW System plans to grow the Flexible Option to include more degrees, she says.
"The next one that we're really looking forward to adding is a Bachelor in Business Administration. This is one degree that has probably the highest demand among this sector of students, that is, the adult working professional," Sandeen says.
Laura Pedrick oversees the Flexible Option at UW-Milwaukee. She says, "It just makes so much sense for you to be able to apply what you know, to get to your degree faster."
Pedrick says UWM has 10 Flexible Option graduates to its credit.
"The ten graduates that I spoke of just shot out of the gate. They're very goal-directed. They had a great deal of professional experience to apply to their flex program."
The program breaks subjects into competency sets. Those are sets of information students must prove they have mastered in order to complete a course and get the credit. The UW System had to decide what material students must master and at what price. It turns out, the Flexible Option is a bit cheaper than other UW online programs, and a lot less than brick and mortar classes.
At first the federal government wouldn’t approve financial aid for the program because it’s so different from traditional college. But Pedrick says things are changing.
"The good news is that UW Colleges and now UWM have both been approved by the U.S. Department of Education to offer aid under what's called 'direct assessment rules,' so that's great news. I think it will strongly help grow the programs, now that aid will be fully available," Pedrick says.
While the UW System was the first public system to offer credit for competencies, the concept actually cropped up a couple decades ago. Margaret Miller follows higher education trends. She's with the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Virginia.
"One of the problems in college completion has always been redundancy -- students being asked to take courses again that they've taken, say, in a community college, or adult students having to take courses in subjects that they know very well from their working lives," Miller says.
Miller says in recent years competency-based education has been catching on. Perhaps that’s because of the large number of adults who never completed a degree, and now realize one would help them. Organizers within the UW System say they’ve heard that at least 300 institutions are offering, or considering, programs similar to the Flexible Option.