This year, the University of Wisconsin launched its version of an all-you-can eat buffet.
Pay $2,250, and take all the online courses you want for three months. It’s part of the university’s Flexible Option program — or as interim chancellor Aaron Brower calls it, the “all-you-can-learn model.”
Wisconsin is on the cutting edge of a trend that, some predict, will revolutionize college education. It’s one of the first public universities to offer a “competency-based” degree program — which means that students can earn a degree by passing a series of assessments. Class time is optional; they just have to prove they’ve mastered the material.
The new Flexible Option, Brower says, was designed mainly for working adults who want a new way to earn, or finish, their college degrees — and to get credit for what they already know. “You could, conceivably, have students who really do nothing but take the tests,” said Brower. In practice, though, he says it should be as rigorous as any classroom experience.
After just three months, it’s still a work in progress, says Brower, who heads UW’s extension program. “We’re trying to hold our numbers down so we can make sure the experience is a good one,” he said. About 100 students enrolled in the first three-month term, which ended Monday, and more than 70 percent have re-upped for another. Most of the others, Brower says, are taking some time off between courses; only two have switched to a “brick and mortar” campus.
So far, only a handful of degrees, in fields like nursing and information technology, are available through the program.
Brower admits the concept has had a mixed reception from UW faculty. Some “have jumped right in,” he said, while others say “we’re taking higher education to hell in a handbasket.”
“A lot of the concerns are that this is meant to replace traditional education,” he said. “It isn’t.” For now, he said, “we have more demand than we can handle.”