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Career Boost: UW's Flexible Option aids working professionals

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Oceans of ink have been dedicated to news stories critiquing the number of hours Americans spend at work, and a forest’s worth of pulp has been devoted to jeremiads describing the woes that await any young worker who tries to make his or her way in the world without a bachelor’s degree.

There’s plenty of truth to both narratives, of course. Americans tend to work more hours and take fewer vacations than citizens of other industrialized nations (at least European ones), and a recent Rasmussen poll revealed that 49% of Americans now work more than 40 hours a week, including 9% who work more than 50 hours.

Meanwhile, higher education continues to prove its worth. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly salary for workers with bachelor’s degrees is $1,108, compared to $777 for those with associate degrees, $651 for those with high school diplomas only, and just $472 for high school dropouts.  

So given those two omnipresent realities — the paramount importance of a degree and the all-consuming demands of working life — what’s a hardworking professional without a bachelor’s degree to do?

Aaron Apel faced just such a predicament. As an information systems specialist for the UW-Madison’s Office of the Registrar, Apel has a good job and a good career, but it’s a career with a ceiling. He earned an associate degree in computer science from Northeast Iowa Community College in 1999, but without a bachelor’s, he found his options were limited.

“Without the undergraduate degree, I’m pretty much capped out as far as how far I can advance,” said Apel. “I’ve got aspirations of being more in a leadership role in higher education administration, maybe within the registrar’s office or somewhere else on campus, and without that degree, there’s just nowhere else to go.”

Add in the commitments of his work and home life, and Apel, a 38-year-old father of three, appeared to be in a pickle.

“I have to be [at my job] during the day, which eliminates the opportunity to take traditional brick-and-mortar classes, and then with the children at home, different sporting events, a social life, it kind of eliminates the opportunity for night classes as well,” said Apel. “Also, my wife is in accounting, so she’s extremely busy three or four months out of the year, so taking brick-and-mortar classes wouldn’t be a great fit.”

Apel did, however, find a way around those imposing obstacles, thanks to an innovative, closely watched UW System program that’s still less than a year old but is already creating plenty of buzz and making a difference for scores of nontraditional students.

Officially, it’s called the UW Flexible Option, but there’s more to it than the mere name might imply. Essentially, the UW Flexible Option is a competency-based degree program that allows students to finish their coursework at their own pace, typically online or through other remote channels.

While that may sound like the UW System is simply treading water in the churning wake of the University of Phoenix and other pioneering online colleges, there’s plenty of reason to think the system is well ahead of the curve. For one thing, people who earn degrees through UW Flex can take full advantage of the UW brand.

“One of the features of UW Flex that is different from other competency-based programs that exist in the country — and there really are only a handful of the type that we have — is that we’re offering the actual degrees from our actual institutions,” said Aaron Brower, interim chancellor for UW-Extension and UW Colleges, and one of the architects of the UW Flexible Option. “So that bachelor’s degree in nursing at UW-Milwaukee is the same degree as the brick-and-mortar program. What Flex does is provide a different route to that degree. Internally, we say there’s no asterisk at the end of that degree.”

Fleet and flexible

As appealing as that part is, there’s plenty to be said as well for the program’s “flexible” and “competency-based” elements.

First of all, students learn at their own pace, and they aren’t limited in the number of credits they can earn during a given subscription period. For a flat tuition fee of $2,250, students sign up for a three-month subscription, and during that time they can advance through the program as quickly (or slowly) as they like — and they can do their coursework whenever they want to. That creates not only a high degree of flexibility for students who need to create a work-life balance, but also a greater degree of efficiency for students who are prepared to “show what they know.”

“On average, students are completing about 1.2 competency sets per subscription period,” said Brower. “So that’s a lot faster as a way through than if you were doing this at a normal course pace.”

The other key element of UW Flex is its emphasis on giving credit for skills students have already mastered, which provides older, nontraditional students like Apel a wider onramp onto a degree track. Students can draw on experience acquired during their years in the workforce to complete assessments that help them finish their degrees.


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