The UW Flexible Option and the UW Inflexible Option

by Reihan Salam

By now, you may well have read Wall Street Journal report Caroline Porter’s article on the University of Wisconsin’s new Flexible Option, a competency-based credentialing initiative that will allow students to gain credit for what they know rather than how long they’ve sat in a classroom. Porter writes that officials are encouraging students to pursue their studies through online courses, but of course many students will draw on work experience and independent reading as well. My favorite passage comes towards the end. Two tenured academics at prestigious public universities warn against the potential dilution of the perceived quality of a University of Wisconsin degree, e.g.:

Some faculty at the school echoed the concern, since the degree will be indistinguishable from those issued by the University of Wisconsin the traditional way. “There has got to be very rigorous documentation that it lives up to the quality of that name,” said Mark Cook, an animal-sciences professor and chairman of the university committee for the faculty senate at the Madison campus.

Yet a young mother offers a contrasting view:

Beth Calvert, a 35-year-old registered nurse at a Milwaukee hospital, hopes to enroll in the program to earn her bachelor’s in nursing. Between working overnight shifts and caring for her 3-year-old daughter, Ms. Calvert said she has little time to move beyond her associate degree but knows that it increasingly is important to her employer, which she said offers a pay raise to nurses with higher degrees.

“The biggest thing is job opportunity,” she said. “It looks better for a hospital to have nurses with bachelor’s degrees. On a day-to-day basis, I feel I have the education I do need.”

Given the findings of Academically Adrift, a broad study of undergraduate education which found that 36 percent of the students surveyed “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning over four years of college” and that a freshman who entered college at the 50th percentile would on average climb to the 68th percentile of first-year students after four years of college, there is a strong case that we need very rigorous documentation that traditional universities are meeting their stated objectives. Cook deserves our thanks for raising this issue, as the results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment that forms the basis of the analysis in Academically Adrift are not generally disclosed by colleges and universities. If the UW Flexible Option is to be subject to rigorous reporting standards, surely the same can be said of UW’s more traditional options, particularly in light of the fact that the latter are far more expensive than the former. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.