Phi Beta Cons

Another Toe in the Water

Scott Walker is the third governor to bring low-cost competition in higher education to his state. Governors Rick Perry of Texas and Mitch Daniels of Indiana have given special priority to Western Governors University (even though WGU is available to all). Now Walker has proposed a flexible competency-based degree à la WGU, but conducted by the University of Wisconsin–Extension.

The devil is in the details, however. If low-cost, online education is the disruptive technology that many assume it is, the only way for an existing organization to shift its business model is to form an autonomous unit that is not tied to the old ways. (The classic example is IBM, which saved itself from destruction by creating an entirely new division, located in Florida, not Armonk, to make personal computers.)

Clearly, telling the flagship, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, to provide a lower-cost system wouldn’t work. But it is not yet obvious that UW-Extension is flexible enough to make this work. UW-Extension currently has online degrees, but they are still established by a “home institution,” a campus of the University of Wisconsin system. Those institutions may be too tied to their programs to allow the price reductions that are necessary. But Walker’s initiative will be worth watching.

One caveat: I’m not saying that this flexible degree is going to provide the kind of excellence in education that the Pope Center longs for. What it could do, however, is force change at traditional institutions that have become rigid, costly, politicized, and academically lax.

Jane S. ShawJane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...


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