Students will demonstrate competency based on variety of learning experiences

MILWAUKEE, Wis. – The University of Wisconsin System announced today the first degree programs that will be offered under its innovative UW Flexible Option starting in Fall 2013. The UW System is expected to be the first public university system in the nation to offer this kind of competency-based, self-paced learning option.

The UW Flexible Option is designed for nontraditional adult students who often come to college with substantial learning acquired in a variety of venues. Regent Vice President Michael J. Falbo, who opened the conference, said on behalf of the Board of Regents, “As we roll out the first UW degrees that will be offered in the new ‘Flex Option’ format, we demonstrate our commitment to serving students in a truly innovative, responsive manner.  I know how important it is to serve this segment of our population.”

UW Regent Vice President Michael Falbo speaking at the podium

UW Regent Vice President Michael Falbo

Built by UW faculty members who oversee traditional degree offerings at the 26 UW campuses, the new UW Flexible Option will allow students to earn college credit by demonstrating knowledge they have acquired through coursework, military training, on-the-job training, and other learning experiences. Students will make progress towards a degree by passing a series of assessments that demonstrate mastery of required knowledge and skills.

UW System President Kevin P. Reilly emphasized the central, key role of the UW faculty in the Flexible Option. Reilly said, “Our UW professors are the guarantors of quality in our traditional classroom-based programs, and ‘traditional’ online programs, and they will play the same role with this competency-based model.”

“This is the 21st-century face of the Wisconsin Idea,” said Reilly.

UW-Milwaukee will offer four degree programs and one certificate program:

  • Two Nursing degrees (R.N.-to-B.S.N. and R.N.-to-M.N.), for Registered Nurses who need additional college to qualify for higher professional credentials
  • A bachelor’s degree-completion program in Diagnostic Imaging, targeted toward certified diagnostic imaging professionals
  • A B.S. in Information Science & Technology, preparing students for jobs in tomorrow’s digital culture and economy
  • A Certificate in Professional and Technical Communication, providing students with the essential written and oral communication skills needed in today’s workplace
Barb Daley speaking at the podium

Barb Daley, UWM College of Nursing professor and Interim Associate Dean of Academic Affairs

The Flexible Option nursing degrees are especially timely, according to Barbara Daley, UW-Milwaukee College of Nursing professor and interim associate dean for Academic Affairs. Daley cited a recent report by the Institute for Medicine that calls for 80% of Registered Nurses nationwide to have a bachelor’s degree by the year 2020. Daley estimates this recommendation will affect thousands of RNs with associate degrees in Wisconsin, who will soon be considering the need to pursue a bachelor’s degree or beyond within the next few years.

“The College of Nursing is uniquely positioned to offer both of these programs,” Daley said, referring to the R.N.-to-B.S.N. and R.N.-to-M.N.

UW Colleges will provide an array of general education and liberal arts courses in the new UW Flexible Option format, in core fields such as biology, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, business, English, Spanish, geography, and others. The UW Colleges will work to provide the Associate of Arts and Science degree via the UW Flexible Option, which may also meet the general education requirements of four-year degree programs launched by other institutions.

Mark Peterson at the podium

UW-Washington County Professor Mark Peterson

Mark C.E. Peterson, professor of philosophy at UW-Washington County, offered a concrete example of how the Flexible Option can help Wisconsin workers with no college degree but years of on-the-job experience. He said that, for example, accountants with 10 or more years of experience do not need to attend Accounting 101 to obtain a degree to advance their career. “It does make sense to find ways to offer them access to university credit for what they’ve learned on the job,” said Peterson.

Several other UW System institutions, including UW-Parkside, are working to develop Flexible Options for their degree programs, and additional offerings should be ready by Fall 2014.

“One of our core goals is to help Wisconsin create a stronger workforce, and I’m proud to say that our first cohort of UW Flex Option programs aligns closely with some of the most pressing workforce needs in Wisconsin. With innovative new approaches to higher education, we can expand college degree opportunities for potentially thousands of Wisconsin residents looking to expand their horizons and advance their careers,” said Reilly. “In June, we announced with Governor Walker our intention to pursue this bold new model. Today, our faculty is stepping forward to embrace that opportunity.”

President Reilly and  Chancellor Cross sharing the podium

President Reilly and
Chancellor Cross

“This is a new direction in American higher education, and Wisconsin is at the forefront,” said Reilly.

Under the UW Flexible Option, UW faculty members modify existing college programs into self-paced, competency-based formats. To maintain UW System’s rigorous academic standards, UW faculty will continue to oversee the academic quality of these newly reformatted degree programs. The degrees and certificates will continue to be granted by the accredited campuses already offering them via traditional teaching formats.

“This Flex Option offers a distinctive value and a unique promise to working adult students. They can start the Flex Option any time, without constraints imposed by the academic calendar. Once under way, students will determine the pace of their learning. Whenever they’re ready to demonstrate mastery of a given subject, they complete the assessment and move on to the next step,” said UW Colleges and UW-Extension Chancellor Ray Cross.

Students will be able to take full advantage of free educational resources available online and elsewhere, including the growing number of massive open online courses, or “MOOCs.” They will demonstrate their knowledge through robust, reliable assessments designed by UW faculty members, and will be held to the same rigorous standards for all UW degrees.

“Our faculty comes to this effort with very high standards and a strong commitment to quality. I have every confidence that we can provide a very rewarding, highly personalized learning experience for the students who choose this new pathway. I’m equally confident that the UWM degrees they earn through the new Flex Option platform will carry the same prestige in the workplace,” said UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Michael Lovell.

UW Regent Tracy Hribar speaking at the podium

UW Regent Tracy Hribar

To gain valuable experience with this new learning platform, UW-Extension will offer some individual courses in the Flexible Option through a pilot program developed by UW Independent Learning. The first courses will include College Algebra, Elementary Statistics, and a non-credit Business Mathematics and Personal Finance Certificate.

The UW Flexible Option is one of the featured initiatives in the biennial budget request forwarded to the State by the UW System Board of Regents.

Nontraditional Student Regent Tracy Hribar praised the timeliness of the Flexible Option program, and thanked UW faculty for working so hard to make this “flexible, affordable, quality” education option a reality.

For more information about the UW Flexible Option, visit


To see a video overview of the UW Flexible Option, visit:

For UW Flexible Option FAQs, visit:

Media contacts:
David Giroux
UW System
Tom Luljak
Teri Venker
UW Colleges and UW-Extension