MADISON, Wis. – Working parents, adults who started college but never completed their degree, and others will have new, affordable opportunities to earn a University of Wisconsin degree as a result of a landmark financial aid option approved last week by the federal government.

The University of Wisconsin System has received approval from the United States Department of Education to award federal financial aid for one of its UW Flexible Option programs. This makes UW System the first public higher education system in the country to award federal aid to students enrolled in competency-based education (CBE).

Late last week, UW Colleges received notice that the U.S. Department of Education has approved its application to award financial aid on the basis of non-term direct assessment for its Associate of Arts and Science (AAS) degree offered in the UW Flexible Option format.

“This is a significant step forward. The opportunity for students in the UW Flexible Option to receive federal financial aid will open more doors to nontraditional and place-bound students, and help UW System further develop the talent base of Wisconsin,” said UW System President Ray Cross. “UW Colleges is pioneering an innovative, new pathway for the vital goal of expanding college access.”

Previously, students enrolled in competency-based educational programs did not have access to the same kind of financial aid options available to students enrolled in traditional programs.

The Department of Education’s decision now enables UW Colleges to award aid for “non-term” competency-based education, allowing students to receive aid while studying in the self-paced, start-and-stop way that often better fits the lives of adult students. Until now, institutions had to award aid by first converting student work on competencies into credit equivalency rather than awarding aid directly on their work.

“We can now award aid for innovative educational programs that directly serve a wider range of students across the nation,” said Aaron Brower, interim chancellor of UW Colleges and UW-Extension. “This is a big deal. We’ve now created a direct pathway for other institutions who wish to award aid for competency-based education.  We are very grateful to the Department of Education for taking this bold move with us.”

“The Board of Regents has strongly supported the goals of the UW Flexible Option and the new and valuable opportunities it offers to students. 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,” said UW System Board of Regents President Michael J. Falbo.

While the Department of Education’s recent approval applies only to UW Colleges’ AAS program, it blazes a trail for other competency-based education programming in the UW System and beyond. Using the same method, UW-Milwaukee is applying for federal financial aid for students in the four programs it currently offers through UW Flexible Option.

The UW Flexible Option, a partnership between UW System campuses and UW-Extension, offers a more personalized, convenient, and affordable way for adults and other nontraditional students to earn a UW degree or certificate while balancing work, family, and other commitments. It includes self-paced, competency-based degree and certificate programs that allow students to make progress by demonstrating what they know, whether that knowledge was gained through prior coursework, military training, on-the-job training, or other learning experiences.

UW-Milwaukee and UW Colleges were the first UW institutions to offer programs in the new Flexible Option format, with the first cohort of UW Flex students starting in January 2014. Three other UW System institutions – UW-Parkside, UW-Stevens Point, and UW-Madison – have committed to offering programs in the new format, with those programs currently in various stages of development.

“UW Flexible Option programs are designed to meet areas of strong student demand, economic growth, and workforce development needs. Giving students enrolled in these UW programs access to federal financial aid ultimately benefits both the students and the state,” said Regent Vice President Regina Millner.

“The UW System is very grateful for the strong support of Wisconsin’s federal delegation – in particular, Rep. Mark Pocan – in getting this accomplished,” Cross said. “This financial aid decision will broaden our ability to meet the needs of Wisconsin and the nation.”

For more information, visit

Media Contact

Heather LaRoi UW System 608-265-3195