Office of the President

In Print

Published in the November/December 2012 issue of Trusteeship magazine (Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges)
Screen shot of March/April 2012 Trusteeship column
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Under Construction: The University of Wisconsin System's "Flexible Degree Model"

By Kevin P. Reilly, President, University of Wisconsin System


Like every other college, university, and state system in the country, the University of Wisconsin (UW) System is adapting to the changing needs of students.

This past June, the UW System announced it will be developing a new Flexible Degree model, one that represents a paradigm shift for how people enter or re-enter college, progress toward degree completion using knowledge they can demonstrate, and earn their degree along a completely different – and far more flexible – pathway. 

The Flexible Degree model responds to a real need. In Wisconsin, it is estimated about 750,000 residents – one in five adults – have some college credit, but not a degree. Surveys indicate that many of them would be interested in completing a degree if hurdles like work and family commitments, distance, and cost could be mitigated. 

The UW System already offers some 4,600 online courses and more than 100 online degree and certificate programs, options that address the needs of place-bound and working adults, as well as traditional students who want online options.

The Flexible Degree model, however, is more than a conversion of traditional academic programs into an online format. Rather, the model is envisioned as a portfolio of degree and certificate programs to be offered through formats that are self-paced, competency-based, and blend online and face-to-face learning. The Flexible Degree model has received early support from Governor Scott Walker (R). He is and we are committed to maintaining the quality that is the hallmark of all UW degrees.

In particular, we seek to develop flexible degrees whose recipients will master the broad “essential learning outcomes” for the 21st century developed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), with strong involvement from the University of Wisconsin. These outcomes, based on the importance of a liberal education as the underpinning for future learning, include knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world, intellectual and practical skills, personal and social responsibility, and integrative and applied learning.

Operationalizing our Flexible Degree model clearly has challenges. Not only do we need new perspectives and partnerships, but we need to develop a new way of structuring and offering academic programs. We are keenly aware that if we do not work through these challenges collectively and as a system, we risk a result that does not serve students or the state well and potentially compromises the integrity of what the UW System stands for. 

From the outset, it has been our intention that faculty members develop the Flexible Degree model, in recognition of their pedagogical and content expertise and the system’s deep tradition of shared governance. Each individual degree program offered via this model will be taught by faculty members within the UW System and will be approved through the same faculty governance and accreditation procedures and policies as all UW degrees. At the core of this effort will be a rigorous assessment and evaluation process. We are engaging UW faculty members to identify the competencies, create evaluation tools, and monitor the effectiveness of the processes. 

We also have begun discussions with our regional accreditor, and we are following closely the U.S. Department of Education’s efforts to determine how financial aid might work for students enrolled in alternative programs.

The UW System’s board of regents, too, has an important role to play. Regents have set high expectations for delivering on what we have promised and – as stewards of educational quality, student access, and fiscal responsibility – they will hold us to them. Indeed, the Flexible Degree model has been identified as one of their top priorities for the 2012-13 academic year.

We know that adult and nontraditional students need more ways to access quality education, and we know that businesses need knowledgeable and skilled workers. The regents are committed to meeting both needs more fully, in the interest of improving individual lives and moving Wisconsin forward in a globally competitive knowledge economy.