Competency-Based Education Goes Mainstream in Wisconsin

Narayan Mahon for The Chronicle

Aaron Apel, who has an associate degree, works full time, and is raising a family, is the kind of student that leaders of competency-based programs have in mind.
September 30, 2013

Twenty years ago, Aaron Apel headed off to the University of Wisconsin at Platteville, where he spent too little time studying and too much time goofing off. He left the university, eventually earning an associate degree in information technology at a community college.

Now, as a longtime staff member in the registrar's office at Wisconsin's Madison campus, he has advanced as far as his education will let him. "I have aspirations to climb the ladder in administration, but the opportunity isn't there without a four-year degree," he says.

Spending months in a classroom is out of the question: In addition to his full-time job, he helps his wife run an accounting business, shuttles three kids to activities, and oversees an amateur volleyball league. Now he may have another option. Later this year Wisconsin's extension system will start a competency-based learning program, called the Flexible Option, in which students with professional experience and training in certain skills might be able to test out of whole courses on their way to getting a degree.

Competency-based learning is already famously used by private institutions like Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University, but Wisconsin will be one of the first major public universities to take on this new, controversial form of granting degrees. Among the system's campuses, Milwaukee was first to announce bachelor's degrees in nursing, diagnostic imaging, and information science and technology, along with a certificate in professional and business communication. UW Colleges, made up of the system's two-year institutions, is developing liberal-arts-oriented associate degrees. The Flex Option, as it's often called, may cost the Wisconsin system $35-million over the next few years, with half of that recovered through tuition. The system is starting with a three-month, all-you-can-learn term for $2,250.

If done right, the Flex Option could help a significant number of adults acquire marketable skills and cross the college finish line—an important goal in Wisconsin, which lags behind neighboring states in percentage of adults with college diplomas. There are some 800,000 people in the state who have some college credits but no degree—among them Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who dropped out of Marquette University. He had pushed the university system to set up the Flex Option early last year, when he was considering inviting Western Governors to the state to close a statewide skills gap in high-demand fields like health care, information technology, and advanced manufacturing.

"Students in general are learning in very different ways," the governor, a Republican, says in an interview. The state's population of adults with some college but no degree constitutes "a target-rich environment for us to find the new engineers, health-care professionals, and IT experts that we need to fill these jobs, so we don't have to recruit them from elsewhere and we don't have to wait for years for undergraduates."

But if it's designed poorly, the program will confirm perceptions held by some faculty members, who already thought that the governor's policies were hostile to higher education. They worry that the Flex Option will turn the University of Wisconsin into a kind of diploma mill or suck resources from a system that is already financially pressured. Faculty at the Green Bay campus passed a resolution to express "doubts that the Flexible degree program will meet the academic standards of a university education."

"It's an intriguing idea, but I think the questions that need to be asked are what are the serious limitations of it," says Eric Kraemer, a philosophy professor at the La Crosse campus, where faculty members were also highly skeptical of the Flex Option. Mr. Kraemer wonders whether there actually is a significant group of Wisconsin adults who have the initiative and ability to test out of big portions of degree programs. And, particularly in a squishier subject area like the humanities, he wonders whether testing can adequately evaluate what a traditional student would glean through time and effort spent in a course. "I have serious doubts about the effectiveness of simply doing a competency test to determine whether someone can actually think on their feet."

Certainly, there are a lot of details to be worked out, even as the Flexible Option prepares to enroll its first students. Some of the challenges are technical or logistical: Wisconsin's extension program will have to spend millions to create a student-information system flexible enough to work in a new environment, where student progress is tracked not by course time but competencies, and where instruction and assessment are decoupled.

In time, Wisconsin will also have to hire an army of "success coaches," who will be far more involved with students than the usual academic adviser. They will be expected to know the subject material, each student's academic department, and the students themselves. There will be one to every 85 students, a far higher ratio than the one-to-hundreds ratio of most advisers.

Other challenges are pedagogical and philosophical: Faculty members, who are in charge of designing the assessments for the Flex Option, are grappling with how students can show mastery of a subject—and even pondering what "mastery" means.

Michael Zimmer, an assistant professor of information studies at the Milwaukee campus, says that in traditional courses, if a student is struggling but shows up to class and makes progress, he might give that student the benefit of the doubt and a passing grade.

"With Flex I don't have that—I just have this assessment," he says. So he and his colleagues have discussed setting a high bar for passing the assessment—students might need a solid B to show "mastery." That approach carries its own risks: If the Flex Option is designed to help people in Wisconsin quickly get degrees by merely taking exams, what happens to the program if only a few people can pass the tests?

In any case, Mr. Zimmer says his dean and other administrators have supported him. "There is the rhetoric of what the governor wants," he says, "but my job here is to make sure that people are getting the right kind of education."

Chad Zahrt, assistant dean of the School of Information Studies at Milwaukee, says the best thing the Flex Option has done is promote a deep discussion about rigor—in the traditional classroom as well.

"It has really gotten people to analyze what they are teaching and what they expect at the end of the process," he says. "Are you really measuring something that is an outcome or a deliverable or mastery, or are they saying, You were here, you showed up? I think there is a false assumption in higher education that rigor is built into every academic experience."

The speculation, scrutiny, and setting high standards are all good for the Flex program, says Aaron Brower, interim provost and vice chancellor of Wisconsin's extension program. There will be no distinction between a traditional degree from the system's campuses and a Flex degree, he says. "There is no asterisk."

Mr. Brower, a professor of social work at Madison who studies education innovations and advises Wisconsin's president on education strategies, understands the skepticism about testing students to determine if they have gotten the deeper knowledge that some believe comes only through seat time in a classroom and interaction with peers. But he believes that test can be designed.

Many people mistakenly believe that the traditional way is the only way, he says. "Why is there an assumption that four years of college leads to that kind of maturity?" he says. "You and I both know people who go through our most elite institutions and they say, I don't know what I got from that."

The other mistake, Mr. Brower says, is thinking that a competency program signals the end of traditional education. "We need to resist the either-or here," he says. "We need to provide lots of options. This really works well for some students, and it doesn't work well for other students."

And if it does work, he says, "What is so bad about it?"