Flexible Option: A Direct-Assessment Competency-Based Education Model

Key Takeaways

  • Although the need for more college degrees among the U.S. population is widely acknowledged, meeting that demand in the face of dramatically increased higher education costs, decreased state funding, and increasingly varied student demographics is a huge challenge.
  • To address this, the University of Wisconsin (UW) launched its Flexible Option (UW Flex) direct-assessment CBE model, through which students can earn degrees and certificates from UW institutions.
  • UW Flex focuses on assessment rather than credit hours, letting students undertake academic work at their own pace and prove mastery of required knowledge and skills through rigorous assessments.
  • To help ensure student success, UW Flex supports students through an optimal blend of materials, people, and technology.

Aaron Brower is interim chancellor of UW-Extension and UW Colleges, University of Wisconsin Colleges.

Dan Fitch didn't fit.

Not in the residential college experience he tried straight from high school.

Not in the traditional online courses that made him wait for professors to post the next assignment.

Not into any degree program he had found.

And then Fitch found Flex.

UW Flexible Option logo

The University of Wisconsin Flexible Option (UW Flex) is a direct-assessment competency-based education (CBE) model launched in November 2013 by the UW System and UW-Extension. In July 2013,  our regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, approved the Flex format for the Online Associate of Arts and Science (AAS) degree at UW Colleges and, at UW-Milwaukee, a

Because UW Flex focuses on assessment rather than credit hours, Fitch was able to prove the knowledge he had accumulated during his 16 years as a software developer in Madison, Wisconsin, and — in just three months — complete entry-level academic work that would have taken him a full academic year in a traditional campus or online program.

Introduction to UW's Flexible Option

Besides saving time, he saved money: $7,500 in tuition.

My role has included development of and leadership for this new way to earn University of Wisconsin degrees and certificates. Before I dive into the details of the UW Flex educational, operational, and business models, I offer a bit of background on what led a public university system to blaze a trail off the beaten credit-hour path for students like Fitch.

UW Flex in Context

Fitch was a toddler during the peak of public funding for higher education. Today in the U.S., state support is about half of what it was in 1981. It has dropped regardless of the political party in power and regardless of boom or bust economies.

Meanwhile, college tuition and fees have increased 600 percent over the same general time period — rising much faster than real household income, inflation, and healthcare costs.2 A summer job will no longer pay the tuition bill, much less cover living costs. Students today have to work six times longer than 30 years ago for these basics, leaving inadequate time for two semesters of classes, related work, and the occasional break to eat and sleep, according to the widely reported estimate by Michigan State University researcher and graduate student Randal Olson.3

Although costs have spiraled upward and state funding has declined, demand for higher education has continued to grow. Estimates show that 63 percent of the nation's population will need postsecondary degrees by the end of this decade, and only 38 percent have those degrees now.4 The White House has challenged colleges and universities to produce more graduates with higher education credentials.

figure 1

Figure 1. Laurentius de Voltolina, 14th century
painting of a university lecture in Italy

The Lumina Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Association of American Colleges and Universities are among the think tanks and foundations that support this "completion agenda."5 Their message resonates with the nation's population. The number seeking higher education will soon push undergraduate enrollment to 20 million — an increase of 50 percent in the past decade.6 Additionally, the American Council on Education estimates that 85 percent of these higher-education seekers don't fit the traditional mold: they are older than 24, attending part time, seeking degrees other than a baccalaureate, and not living in or around a residential university.7

Clearly, higher education has reached a crossroad, and it's badly in need of reconstruction to handle today's travelers and tomorrow's traffic. Traditional educational models are not designed to serve the population most needing postsecondary education. We keep trying to wedge nontraditional students into inflexible educational structures that were built for 18 to 22 year olds and have barely changed in almost a millennium. Compare, for example, a modern-day lecture-style classroom to the 14th century painting by Laurentius de Voltolina (figure 1), which shows a university lecture in Bologna and includes a sadly familiar sight for contemporary professors: a snoozing student.

Funding for higher education continues to shift from public to private, yet the public shows little tolerance for high tuition. Worse yet, politicians paint colleges and universities as wasteful and inefficient, saddling students with high costs and debt on degrees that are out of touch with the economy's needs. This is an enterprise ripe for innovation.

The Competency-Based Education Solution

Alverno College, a liberal arts college in Milwaukee, was among the pioneers in competency-based education (CBE), having introduced an ability-based curriculum about 40 years ago.8 CBE's main characteristic is a curriculum that requires students to demonstrate learning outcomes. Alverno, for example, offers a Master of Arts in Education program that consists of required core courses and additional courses for each specialization area; all students are expected to demonstrate what they've learned until they reach content mastery.

Other longstanding CBE examples include SUNY's Empire State College, founded in 1971; Excelsior College, founded by the New York State Board of Regents in 1971 as Regents College; and Charter Oak State College, established by the Connecticut legislature in 1973. Although these CBE models offer credit for prior learning, they continue to use course-and-term structures and are precursors to direct-assessment CBE models.

Direct-assessment CBE has been hailed as a true innovator in higher education.9 In the direct-assessment model, students progress toward degrees not through structured courses or accumulated credits, but by demonstrating mastery over the competencies that define that degree. Students must complete assessments, proving mastery before they can move on. They prepare for these assessments as they like and at their own pace, receiving support as needed. If they don't achieve mastery the first time, they can take the assessment again. So, in this model, instead of learning being variable and time constant, learning is constant and time is variable.

UW's Flexible Option Solution

In the U.S., a handful of direct-assessment CBE-based programs currently exist. The best known is the online, competency-based Western Governors University, created by 19 governors and launched in 1999; it currently serves more than 50,000 students.

In Wisconsin, we created UW Flex to serve students like Fitch who have some college credit but need high-quality degrees or certificates to reach their next educational or career goals. In an August 2014 interview, Fitch noted that he first started thinking about getting a degree a few years before: he was interested in computational neuroscience, and he had considered pursuing a master's degree in neuroscience or biology. To complete his bachelor's degree, Fitch began taking a few traditional online courses through UW Colleges Online. However, the courses were professor-paced rather than self-paced; when Fitch wrapped up one online course assignment, he was ready to open the next instead of waiting for the professor to post it or for classmates to join a required online chat. "When the Flex program got announced," he said, "I was super excited because that's even better for me."

The UW Flex Education Model

The UW Flex education model is built on five principles:

  • University of Wisconsin institutions offer the degrees and certificates.
  • These degrees and certificates are defined by discipline-specific competencies.
  • Students progress toward their degree or certificate by proving mastery of the curriculum area's required knowledge and skills through rigorous assessments.
  • Students work at their own pace, through flexible pathways, and whenever and wherever they want.
  • Strong support is provided to help ensure student success through an optimal blend of materials, people, and technology.

One of UW Flex's most important structural elements is that we offer actual UW degrees from actual UW institutions. We have not created a parallel university, nor have we hired parallel instructors. The faculty and academic staff in departments at our UW partner institutions — currently UW Colleges and UW-Milwaukee — are the experts who develop programs in the UW Flex format for their subject areas.

UW Colleges, for example, now has three options for students seeking an AAS liberal arts transfer degree. Such students can achieve the AAS degree through

  • any of the 13 freshman-sophomore brick-and-mortar campuses,
  • the UW Colleges Online semester- and course-based traditional online program, or
  • the UW Flex format.

Kim Kostka, a chemistry professor at UW-Rock County who also served as the UW Flex coordinator, worked with her UW Colleges colleagues to establish the same learning outcomes for UW Flex as for the brick-and-mortar and online AAS. They wrote assessments, defined competencies, and now are evaluating student work. They also follow the same standard university governance policies and processes for curriculum approval. Furthermore, UW Colleges sought and received approval for the curriculum from the Higher Learning Commission — the same entity that accredits the AAS degree offered through our UW Colleges campuses and UW Colleges Online.

Curriculum Development

Curriculum development works the same, whether for the UW Colleges AAS or the UW-Milwaukee programs. The curriculum consists of competencies, assessments, and curated content. We view the curriculum broadly and holistically, rather than as a curriculum that simply converts courses into competencies.

Kostka and her colleagues began curriculum development with several large program-level competencies that reflect what students must know and be able to do on completion of the degree or certificate. These program-level competencies define the promise that our institutions make — to students, transfer institutions, and employers — about what students will know and be able to do with that degree or certificate.

As figure 2 shows, it can be helpful to view a single program-level competency at the apex of a three-tiered pyramid. Several sub-competencies comprise the middle pyramid level, while the pyramid foundation consists of sub-competencies at the granular level.

figure 2

Figure 2. Pyramids of program-level competency

The UW Flex curriculum is primarily offered online. However, some programs — including nursing — incorporate hands-on or other in-person assessments and experiences.

New Roles for Students, Faculty and Staff

Fitch climbed a few pyramids — which represented entry-level subject matter — in his first week as a UW Flex student. "I've been doing tech for so long, some of it is second nature," he explained. "I just write the essays, and prove I know the material to their specifications."

During his first three-month subscription period (from May through July 2014), Fitch was able to drop down to 80 percent at work and take a few vacation days. In that time, he completed work equivalent to 33 credits in a brick-and-mortar program. Fitch took a scheduled break, and then started his second three-month subscription period in October 2014. At this point, he assumes he will progress more slowly, as the assessments measure higher-level knowledge and skills.

Given his employment in the IT field and previous success in online courses, Fitch is the kind of student we knew would be comfortable in the technology-rich online UW Flex environment. However, UW Flex is not for everyone. Most students learn about the program online and take our two-part Flex Fit survey to determine program readiness and whether UW Flex suits their needs. After completing their online readiness assessment, prospective students are invited to discuss next steps with a UW Flex outreach specialist, who might ultimately refer them to other UW programs that would better meet their needs and learning style.

Once admitted to UW Flex, students are assigned an academic success coach (ASC), who offers personalized assistance that extends far beyond traditional student advising. The ASC role incorporates best practices of proactive, wrap-around support.10 A signature component of UW Flex, the ASC role is critical to student success and includes elements not only of advising but also academic tutoring and life coaching. ASCs discuss educational and career goals with students, help them recognize and plan according to demands on their time (such as job, family, and other obligations), guide development of an efficient learning plan and realistic timeline, and provide feedback as students prepare for assessments.

With Flex, the student is at the center of the educational experience, choosing the pathway and pace while working through assessments. The ASC is the center of the student's support system, operating as the "go-to" person to help each person progress.11 As ASC Manager Nadia Kaminski, explained it, "Our students are not traditional, and their academic experience will not be traditional — and that means our support role will not be traditional."

One of those nontraditional UW Flex students is Carla Lundeen, a nursing student who is married with children and has a full-time job as a clinical coordinator for Western Wisconsin Cares in La Crosse. "When you're working full time, have a family, life is busy and unpredictable," said Lundeen. "Flex gives me the ability to get home from work, get the family settled, and then I can focus on my school. I appreciate having the independence to create the structure that I need in order to be successful in my courses."12

Kaminski and her ASC staff point students to the learning resources they need to succeed, including textbooks, online resources, courses, structured internships, service projects, work experiences, and practical experiences. ASCs can also assist students with registration, financial aid applications, understanding tuition, tracking deadlines, and preparing for graduation.

Lundeen appreciated the ASC support she enjoys in the nursing program: "As motivated as I am, there are still times I encounter things that I'm just not sure about," she said. "All I have to do is send my ASC an e-mail or chat with her about what the issue might be, and it gets worked through. It's just so helpful having that one person you can always contact."13

Fitch is working with his ASC to make UW Flex even more flexible and customized to his ultimate career goal: his ASC is exploring how to incorporate undergraduate research at a neuroscience lab, even though Flex doesn't yet officially offer that type of arrangement for his degree program.

Although the ASCs are new UW hires, the UW faculty remain the same — as do their expectations of the knowledge and skills students must master in a given program. Faculty do not teach, however, and there are no classrooms. Faculty direct an educational environment created by a team of experts including instructional designers, tutors, librarians, the ASCs, and others who provide academic support.

UW System President Ray Cross

"Certainly, the interactions with students are different," said Kostka. "Students initiate the interactions by completing their assessments. At that point, the instructors respond to the students' work and interact with the students over their strengths and weaknesses. But some things are the same: the planning of the curriculum, the design for how best to share that with students."

Kostka noted that faculty participants have had mixed feelings. "Some are finding it difficult to separate themselves from the traditional instructor-leader-guide role," she said. "Others are really embracing the model and have led us all by designing rich feedback systems to support our students' academic development."

This new educational model offered through a public university system is drawing the attention of potential students — as well as that of educational innovators. As UW President Ray Cross describes, many of these educators are questioning whether, how, or when they could jump in the competency-based pool.

From August 2012 to today, the UW Flex has grown from a two-page concept paper to a reality that serves the 214 students enrolled as of September 2014. Interest is high; 19,000 prospective students began Flex Fit as of October 2014, and we will allow enrollments to grow with our capacity to handle them.

The Flex Operational Model

UW Flex is a joint undertaking of the UW System, which provided startup funding, and UW-Extension, which continues to provide operational and administrative support. Individual institutions — including our first partners, UW Colleges and UW-Milwaukee — provide degrees and certificates. These degree-granting institutions participate through well-defined partnerships with UW-Extension.

Unlike most other states, Wisconsin's UW-Extension is a stand-alone institution within the UW System, serving families, businesses, and communities statewide through offices in all 72 of the state's counties and three tribal nations, the statewide broadcasting networks of Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television, entrepreneurship and economic development activities by county throughout the state, and continuing education services through all 26 UW System campuses.

While UW Colleges and UW-Milwaukee faculty members rolled up their sleeves, shifted gears, and moved into overdrive to create the first programs in the UW Flex format, UW-Extension continuing education staff simultaneously developed the new operational model.

In addition to successfully serving returning adult students, the UW-Extension staff had already demonstrated success in

  • leading the development and offering of collaborative degree programs with other UW institutions;
  • building expertise on the technology platforms needed to deliver a competency-based model; and
  • nimbly responding to market needs through existing cost-recovery educational programs.

Higher education's currency is the credit hour, and it has been since the early 1900s when Andrew Carnegie promoted the credit hour as a faculty workload measure for pension purposes.14 It evolved to measure learning progress; today, all operations revolve around the credit hour, from admissions to bursar to registration and financial aid and transcripts.

Typically, a student registers for X number of classes, which translates into Y number of credits; they are then charged Z dollars, either per credit or for a specific number of credits. UW Flex breaks from that X-Y-Z formula, charging students instead for a "subscription period" during which they can progress through as many competency assessments as they wish.

Higher Ed Mindshift diagram

The downside of plowing new ground is that the regulatory environment and the software support for higher education continue to follow the credit-hour model. Laura Kite, assistant dean for student affairs in UW-Extension's continuing education division, explains:

"Finding a student information system proved to be one of the biggest challenges for the UW Flexible Option. We specified our needs, put out the request for proposals, and hoped an SIS would surface that worked for our non-term, direct-assessment CBE program. That didn't happen. We ultimately failed the RFP because no off-the-shelf SIS solution demonstrated they could meet the needs of UW Flex. Our educational model is ahead of the software industry serving higher education."

For now, operations are a "manual" process — labor-intensive but manageable because of dedicated academic student services staff. Larry Graves, registrar and director of admissions for UW Colleges, explained that because the UW Colleges faculty did not create new courses or policy to support the AAS degree in the UW Flex format, they could use their existing functions and setup. "It came with pains, but that is always to be expected with any new program," Graves said.

One operational challenge has been that federal financial aid rules and regulations are not compatible with direct-assessment CBE programs. For example, for a self-paced program, what constitutes a "halftime" student? And how do you measure "satisfactory academic progress?"

In January 2014, we began working with the U.S. Department of Education on our Title IV eligibility for direct-assessment CBE programs, which was part of President Obama's agenda to make college affordable.15 The challenging part in this process was that we were applying for financial aid for "non-term," which hasn't been done before. Only two other direct-assessment programs had been approved, and both were for non-standard term.

Eager to expand access to the non-term UW Flex, federal officials helped us shape our application as they fine-tuned their expectations. This eight-month, iterative process culminated in early September 2014, when UW Colleges received approval to award aid for non-term CBE.16 To provide some relief during this eight-month period, we offered tuition reductions for qualified students.

The UW System Board of Regents supported us in this process. As Board of Regents President Michael J. Falbo noted, "this decision by the Department of Education will move the UW Flexible Option to the next level, and reaffirms UW System's standing as an innovative educational leader."17

Now we can award financial aid on the basis of students completing competencies without having to convert them into credits. UW Flex students can be awarded aid as if they're in a brick-and-mortar program. From a student's perspective, differences in how financial aid is awarded might seem subtle. From a program level, however, it means we can run UW Flex the way we want to, free from the credit-hour currency.

To evaluate their eligibility for tuition and living expenses, students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Although the Department of Education's recent approval applies only to UW Colleges' AAS program, it blazes a trail for other CBE programming in the UW System and beyond. We have already submitted an application for UW-Milwaukee's UW Flex programs; because we're following the same template as for the AAS, we assume the process will be smoother and hope for approval by the beginning of 2015.

The Flex Business Model

Another innovative element of UW Flex is the cost-recovery business model, which requires start-up funds but no ongoing state or UW System support. As we build capacity, we will scale up. We estimate that each program will break even in about three to five years based on enrollments; thereafter, programs will allow for revenue sharing among our partner institutions.

Enrollment is by subscription period. Fitch, for example, paid $2,250 for a three-month all-you-can learn subscription period from May through July 2014, and began his second three-month subscription period in October. Subscription periods begin each month rather than being term-based.

We also offer an option to pay $900 for one program competency at a time. We designed that alternative to accommodate hospital nurses — because many hospitals reimburse nurses for one continuing education course per semester — but the single program competency is open to all UW Flex students. So far, enrollment is split about 50–50 between the two payment options.

Our business model depends on meeting market needs, so we began with areas that are most needed for economic and civic health. These areas include Fitch's field of IT and the nursing program, which health care administrators like Mary Beth Kingston, executive vice president and chief nursing officer of Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee, highly value. Said Kingston:

"The demand for nurses is growing, particularly for those with a bachelor of science in nursing. The UW Flexible Option RN to BSN program allows working nurses with busy lives an opportunity to seamlessly move forward in their careers. At the same time, they're bringing new ideas to their workplace. It's a win-win."

The Future of UW Flex

Future success depends on having the right program array to meet demands. We'll soon expand; three programs are in the pipeline:

  • UW-Parkside bachelor's degree in integrative professional studies,
  • UW-Madison alcohol and drug counselor certificate, and
  • UW-Stevens Point master's degree in geographic information systems.

The UW-Parkside program is a stackable certificate model that gives adult students the ultimate flexibility. UW Flex students in this program will be able to enroll in one or more competency-based stand-alone certificates or in a competency-based degree program in which individual certificates comprehensively "stack" together to form the degree. Applications for enrollment in the first two certificates (global skills and sales) opened November 2, 2014. Additional certificates — in leadership, project management, professional writing, and public relations — will be rolled out with the Bachelor of Integrative Professional Studies program in 2016.

The UW-Madison counseling certificate is driven by the Affordable Care Act, which changed training requirements for reimbursable work in the area of drug and alcohol counseling. Demand for GIS experts also is high, as an estimated 80 percent of all information is connected to a geographic location, and more than a half million professionals in a wide range of occupations use GIS in their work.18

We also recognize the demand for business degrees and are working with potential UW System institutional partners to develop a collaborative degree in the UW Flex format. Although developing a program in the UW Flex format is not easy, it is rewarding according to Kostka.

"The most challenging aspect has been the speed with which we've launched the program — both getting that much work done in the time available and having enough opportunity to share our best practices for development. The other challenge, which has been really fun to work through, is the collaborative spirit of the project. I was able to work on a team and I relish the conversations I've had about teaching and learning in chemistry."

Kostka also reflected on the unexpected impact UW Flex has had on the way she teaches face-to-face.

"Now that I've been through the process, I see creative ways to reconceive my in-class approach to be more supportive of student learning, more clear in the goals of the curriculum, and more direct about the student's responsibility to gain and demonstrate mastery. While one could say this approach is 'teaching to the test,' what I'm thinking instead is 'Design the test worth learning for.'"

Having started with Dan Fitch's story, it seems appropriate to end with his reflections on his experience as one of our first UW Flex students:

"It has been good sticking with the program, even with the bumps, simply for how flexible it all is. I feel like the faculty and students in this program are in a co-learning loop, trying to figure out what the changing constraints of this type of educational system are. I'm grateful to be involved, even through all the little bumps, because this really is the only way I can see getting a degree for me."
  1. University of Wisconsin System news release, "UW Institutions Approved to Offer Flexible Option Degrees," July 11, 2013.
  2. Aaron Brower, Kim Kostka, and Gregory Lampe, "Higher Education is Dead, Long Live Higher Education," Perspectives, Summer 2014.
  3. Randal Olson, "It's Impossible to Work Your Way through College Nowadays," blog, March 22, 2014.
  4. Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl, "Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018," Georgetown University, Center on Education and the Workforce, June 2010.
  5. Debra Humphreys, "What's Wrong with the Completion Agenda – And What Can We Do About It," Liberal Education, vol. 98, no. 1, 2012.
  6. National Center for Education Statistics, "Undergraduate Enrollment," The Condition of Education, May 2014.
  7. Louis Soares, Post-Traditional Learners and the Transformation of Postsecondary Education: A Manifesto for College Leaders, American Council on Education, January 2013.
  8. Mary Meehan, The Abilities at Work, Alverno College President's Report, 2012-2013.
  9. Anya Kamenetz, "Are You Competent? Prove It," The New York Times, October 29, 2013.
  10. Clearinghouse Academic Advising Resources, "Proactive (Intrusive) Advising Resource Links," 2014.
  11. UW Flexible Option blog, "What's the Key to Success in Competency Based Education? Ask a UW Flex Academic Success Coach to Find Out," May 7, 2014.
  12. UW Flexible Option blog, "Why One Busy Nurse Chose the UW Flexible Option's RN to BSN Program," June 18, 2014.
  13. UW Flexible Option blog, "Why One Busy Nurse Chose the UW Flexible Option's RN to BSN Program," June 18, 2014.
  14. Jessica Shedd, "The History of the Student Credit Hour," New Directions for Higher Education, vol. 122, summer 2003.
  15. U.S. Department of Education. "Applying for Title IV Eligibility for Direct Assessments (Competency-Based Programs," March 19, 2013.
  16. UW-Extension news release, "UW Colleges' UW Flexible Option Degree Program Receives Federal Approval for Student Financial Aid," September 2, 2014.
  17. UW System news release, "UW System Receives Approval to Award Federal Financial Aid for a Competency-Based UW Flexible Option Program," September 2, 2014.
  18. Douglas Miskowiak, "Geographic Information Systems Education and Research for Students, Professionals, and Wisconsin Citizens," UW-Stevens Point GIS Center brochure, September 2010.