Changes that Gov. Scott Walker made to the state budget before he signed it last week will require the University of Wisconsin System to double the number of courses offered through its online Flexible Option program over the next two years.
But the budget does not include new funding to expand the program, which currently includes eight degree and certificate courses through which non-traditional adult students earn credentials by demonstrating their mastery of subjects such as nursing or business administration.
And one higher education expert is questioning the Flexible Option’s rapid growth, saying it has not been subject to rigorous evaluation and that UW officials have produced little data to show the program is effective.
The budget requires UW to increase Flexible Option offerings to 16 programs by December 2019, less than six years after its founding.
“They’ve created entire new systems, lots of personnel — and for what? What’s the rate of return?” said Noel Radomski, managing director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education. “Is this really addressing the real needs of adult learners?”
UW Colleges and Extension Chancellor Cathy Sandeen said officials are “constantly evaluating” the Flexible Option initiative.
A UW Extension spokeswoman acknowledged that officials don’t yet have data on student graduation rates in Flexible Option — the program, which was launched in 2014, is too young, she said. They do track retention rates and survey students to gauge their satisfaction with the program, however.
As for the expansion, Sandeen acknowledged that it will be a “challenge” to launch eight new programs without new state funding to pay for their development but said the change reflects well on the initiative.
“We really see this as a huge vote of confidence in University of Wisconsin Extension and the Flexible Option program,” Sandeen said.
No money to expand
Walker first called for UW to expand the Flexible Option in his executive budget, with a provision that required a 50 percent increase in its number of degree and credential courses.
The Legislature reduced that to a 25 percent increase, but Walker used his broad partial veto power to expand the program even further than he had originally proposed, mandating a 100 percent increase.
“Walker is challenging the UW System to make the Flexible Option and college affordability higher priorities as we continue our work to help meet workforce needs,” said Tom Evenson, a spokesman for the governor.
Flexible Option is aimed primarily at working adults, many of whom attended college but did not earn a degree, who are seeking professional credentials, UW officials say.
It’s an example of competency-based education, an approach to learning that is growing in popularity across the country because it prioritizes the skills students can demonstrate in given fields over their time in classrooms.
None of the proposals to increase the size of Flexible Option — which cost UW $2.8 million in the most recent fiscal year while bringing in $2.5 million worth of revenue — included more money.
A separate budget provision extended new financial aid funding to Flexible Option students. And the budget does include more money overall for the System.
Sandeen did not provide an estimate for how much starting the new programs would cost but said it will “require a substantial investment.”
A UW System spokeswoman did not respond to a question about whether the System would provide more money to Extension to pay for the growth.
Evenson said the program’s start-up costs “amount to an incredibly small percentage of the UW System’s overall budget.”
UW officials plan to work with the Department of Workforce Development and other advisers to determine the fields in which Flexible Option will add programs, Sandeen said, which will likely include information technology management, biomedical sciences and geographic information systems.
Only one Flexible Option program — a certificate course on substance use disorders — generated net revenue in the most recent fiscal year, according to a report UW Extension provided to the System’s Board of Regents in June. Two others are expected to start producing net revenue over the next two years.
Radomski said it has been hard to find detailed statistics about student outcomes in Flexible Option, or the money and staff time that has gone into building up the program and its support services, which include advising, financial aid and course development.
He attributed the growth more to the political appeal of competency-based education than the merits of Flexible Option itself.
“It was a political decision and they just keep putting money into it,” Radomski said.
David Bergeron, a senior fellow in the left-leaning Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary for post-secondary education in the U.S. Department of Education, said competency-based programs hold tremendous potential, but must show they are delivering on that promise for students.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to be dramatically expanding programs that are not rigorously evaluated,” Bergeron said.
Flat fee for 3-month
Students who enroll in Flexible Option pay a flat fee of $2,250 for a three-month subscription period, which allows them to take as many online courses and assessments as they want.
Students who demonstrate mastery of the courses can earn a certificate or degree.
UW Extension officials say 1,430 students have enrolled in Flexible Option’s courses since its inception; 197 have completed either a certificate or a degree, while UW calculates it has 912 active students based on the percentage of program participants who start a new subscription period within six months of finishing another without a degree.
Extension officials cautioned that students who had not earned a credential and weren’t active hadn’t necessarily dropped out without finishing their program, since students can stop and start programs at their own pace.
Flexible Option’s retention rate — defined as the students who re-enroll within six months of the end of a subscription period — varies between 71 and 77 percent among the courses, according to UW Extension.
Evenson cited demand for Flexible Option programs among students and employers as a metric that led Walker to push for the expansion.
Sandeen said Flexible Option’s retention rates, number of graduates and rising enrollment — as well as anecdotal evidence she has heard from alumni who landed jobs or promotions — point to a successful program.
“It’s intended to provide one more important pathway for the citizens of Wisconsin to engage with the University of Wisconsin, and earn their degree,” Sandeen said.