Revolutionary new UW degree program will open doors

Let me bore you here with something that I find really important, groundbreaking and life-changing. And let me emphasize something upfront: I’m not speaking on behalf of anyone except me.

This from yesterday’s Wausau Daily Herald:

“The University of Wisconsin System is developing a new competency-based online degree model, Gov. Scott Walker and System President Kevin Reilly announced today at St. Clare’s Hospital in Weston.

The model will allow students to earn credits based on life experience if they pass a competency test. This gives students the opportunity to see where they are lacking and take only those specific courses, or parts of courses, they need in order to get a degree, Walker said.”


Announcements of the new approach were also made in Green Bay and Madison at health care facilities, but connecting the program to health care is really just a distraction in comparison to the larger implications for higher education in Wisconsin and for the many thousands of people who will soon have an entirely new access point toward gaining a college degree. And although the online environment creates a potent medium for the exchange of information, it is also a mistake to focus too heavily on that single aspect, integral as it happens to be. The truth is that much of the basic premise could be accomplished via other means. This snippet from the Wisconsin State Journal really puts it into a nutshell:

“The emphasis with this program is not on teaching; it’s on assessing and learning,” said Ray Cross, chancellor of University of Wisconsin Colleges & Extension. “In a very simple way, what we’re saying is we don’t care where you learn it, we’re going to assess whether you know it” and give credit accordingly.

As I read some of the coverage and some of the online comments that people made in response, it became clear that it will take some time and a lot more discussion before many people understand exactly what it is that will be offered here. But it’s something really important. It is a departure from the status quo that is fundamental. It will put the university in a position of evaluating students that it has not directly taught. While that might sound pretty simple, it hasn’t been all that common.

Credentialing is a very important aspect of higher education and it is absolutely critical for students in order to ultimately capture value and return on their investment. For as long as anyone can remember, students have been getting jerked around by a cumbersome system plagued by issues such as credit transfers between institutions of higher learning, differing general education requirements and other bureaucratic red tape that can often arguably do more to create barriers toward degree completion than toward imparting and measuring a quality education. There were a lot of reasons that this happened. Institutions justifiably wanted to protect the integrity of their programs and ensure the quality of their graduates. But I would also submit that there was plenty of hubris and turf protection that entered into the equation along the way, too. Degrees are proprietary. It not only makes a difference THAT you get one, but also from where. You want MY degree? Then you dance to my tune – (whether it actually has much to do with the quality and quantity of your academic knowledge – which it sometimes does — or not.) 

What we ended up with was a system in which one of the 12 apostles couldn’t have received any college credit in Christian Studies because Jesus Christ didn’t have a PhD or an articulation agreement in force for his program, which was unaccredited anyway.  The new approach says that maybe a fellow who followed Christ around for a few years — who learned at his feet and wrote a gospel that was fairly interesting, (although we must concede did not make the final cut at Nicea) — well, maybe someone like that ought to be able to take the test for that class. Since we offer it at our university anyway, we don’t really need to make sure St. Thomas spends a year wearing a freshman beanie, (a fine old tradition that persisted all the way into the 1960s at some schools until people came to a stunning conclusion: it’s irrelevant.)

Let’s say I like French, so I spend several years learning it on my own. I purchase a half dozen books, 18 audio tapes and a 52-lesson video series, rent countless French films and take multiple trips to France, where I immerse myself in the language. Do you think it makes sense for me to sign up for first year French, spending hundreds of dollars and a semester in that class for instruction that may actually teach me very little that I don’t already know because “that’s the system?” Or do you think maybe I should have the opportunity to certify my existing knowledge, get the appropriate college credit for it and start further along in the curriculum, where I can build far more beneficially from my existing base of understanding?

Ansel Adams had an eighth grade education. Do you think he knew something about photography? Do you think Paul McCartney knows something about music?

In short, it’s not about HOW you learned, but WHAT you learned. Importantly, this is not a subjective judgment. It is something that we already can and must measure objectively against established standards for traditional students. We know very well what we expect a student to know and be able to do after a course in English composition, college algebra, physics, French 101 and a lot of other subjects. No matter what avenue a student uses or chooses to gain the required knowledge, the proof of it is in the measurement through appropriate and reliable testing.

Neither students nor taxpayers have the time or money to duplicate efforts in the name of maintaining an inflexible system as the ONLY method by which people can earn legitimate academic credentials appropriate to their true level of learning and expertise. Added to its arsenal of resources as a world class higher education system, the UW’s new program will open important new opportunities for people who heretofore did not have many practical options — from place bound adults with family responsibilities that keep them out of college classrooms to middle managers, small business owners, truck drivers, members of the military and many others who have or can acquire college-level knowledge within their unique, individual circumstances. Some of that will also impact on affordability, since there is no point in paying for instruction in things that the student already knows.

Far be it from me to suggest that in an environment that includes funny hats and keeping historic titles like provost and chancellor alive, this may have been a bit long in coming. But the truth of the matter is that the very nature of traditional college education is that just like people in the hierarchy of traditional religion, those who run the system will tend to be heavily invested in the status quo. You can therefore become very old waiting for an encyclical that will really make a difference. At the same time, education needs to be on the cutting edge of a body of human knowledge that is growing exponentially and part of that knowledge applies to education’s own system of delivery and assessment.

If I seem a little passionate about this, there is a reason. I doubt that I anything have done in my career since 1981 would have been possible if I had not obtained a bachelor’s degree from an accredited post-secondary institution. But the reason that I have one at all is because of an innovative program through the University of the State of New York that enabled me to learn at my own pace, bank credits from various different sources and fulfill the requirements of my degree while I was serving a half dozen years in the U.S. Air Force. What would the future have been for a fellow who eloped as a teenager, had a family to support and couldn’t stop the world for four or more years of formal education after I left the military? Much different! But thankfully, there was another path and now, the UW System will be paving that other path, too. And yes, it’s a very big deal.


Here’s the news release from yesterday’s pressers:

Be sure to click on the link within the release for a more complete presentation on the initiative:

Discussion of the new degree program on Wisconsin Public Television’s Here and Now program:

And for a template of what some of this might look like, visit:


2 Responses to “Revolutionary new UW degree program will open doors”

  1. John Rosenberg Says:

    This is a revolutionary program in its potential to make a college degree accessible to almost any motivated adult regardless of income level. Along with textbooks and lecture notes going digital, it also takes some of the elitism out of “higher ed” and recognizes that there are more ways to be smart than to simply have letters behind your name.

    One small quibble: While the example of the 12 apostles not being able to qualify for credentials because their rabbi was “unaccredited” is an excellent one, the Council of Nicea in 325 CE didn’t actually set the bar for which books made it into the New Testament canon. The first mention of the 27 books that most Christians consider “canonical” and therefore “made the cut” isn’t until they are mentioned in an episcopal letter written by Athanasius in 367 CE. For our Orthodox sisters and brothers, the Council of Trullan in 692 CE settled on the canon. For Roman Catholics, it was the Council of Trent in 1546. For the Reformed and Calvinist churches, it was the 39 Articles in 1563. And in a discovery that is certain to have my Missouri Synod forebears rolling over in their proverbial graves, according to Wikipedia, there is no explicit list of canonical NT books in any of the Lutheran Confessions. This may explain the fascination of some of my parishioners with The Gospel of Thomas.

    John Rosenberg, MDiv.
    Tumwater, WA

  2. Thanks for that bit of enlightenment and clarification. Religious Studies were not part of my degree, (as you might have guessed.) But I still take my education wherever I can get it, so I thank you for your contribution to my life of learning.

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