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The University of Wisconsin is taking its experiments with competency-based education one step farther, giving its extension arm the authority to build and award degrees. At other institutions in the system, however, administrators aren't convinced the different format is enough to set the degrees apart from the programs they already offer.

UW-Extension has been around for more than a century, and its various responsibilities include applied research, continuing education and public broadcasting, among others. About two years ago, it added competency-based education to that list. Known as the UW Flexible Option, the certificate and degree programs are aimed at adults who want to study on their own time and earn credit for prior knowledge.

The outreach arm has not been able to put its own name on those programs, however; UW-Extension has not had the authority to grant degrees. Its competency-based associate degree in arts and science offered in the Flexible Option format, for example, technically comes from the University of Wisconsin Colleges. That dependency on other institutions has made the development of competency-based programs slower than preferred, UW-Extension administrators said.

That changed on Friday, when the system’s Board of Regents approved a mission change. As soon as December 2016, UW-Extension hopes to offer its first competency-based degree: a bachelor of arts in business and management.

“This vote by the Board of Regents last week is really a vote for innovation in the UW System, giving us more flexibility to create our own degree programs more quickly and get them out there to students who need them,” Cathy Sandeen, chancellor of UW Colleges and Extension, said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

Sandeen said the vote is an opportunity to create a new type of institution in the system, which consists of two research universities, 11 four-year universities, 13 two-year colleges and the outreach arm. The reworked UW-Extension will serve as a “safety valve,” she said, contracting with other colleges and universities in the system to quickly assemble and disassemble competency-based degrees as they are needed.

Internal Competition or Expansion?

The expansion comes at a time when the system itself is contracting. A state budget plan passed earlier this year cuts $250 million from the system over two years, and individual campuses are absorbing their share. At the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, that means cutting more than 150 positions. The UW Colleges will see a 30 percent reduction in administrative jobs.

The mission change has been met with mixed reception across the system. Those critical of the decision cited both philosophical and practical concerns.

For some, the clearest symbol of the change can be seen in UW-Extension’s new mission statement. The outreach arm no longer serves “all Wisconsin people,” but “people of Wisconsin and beyond.” Critics say the revised mission clashes with the Wisconsin Idea, the belief that the university system should focus on the state and its residents.

Noel T. Radomski, director and associate researcher of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, said in a blog post that the change “would reverse the 108-year legacy” of the UW-Extension serving Wisconsinites.

“Why would the Board of Regents change the mission statement adding the ability for UW-Extension to offer degree programs when 26 campuses already do that?” Radomski said in an interview. “Do you change your mission that has gone back to 1906 to offer for-credit courses or for-credit degree programs because you’re unable to find a partner for competency-based education?”

Sandeen said the Wisconsin Idea was never meant to be “carved in stone and never changed,” arguing the university system has recognized the value of serving people in other parts of the U.S. and the world. (Indeed, the University of Wisconsin at Madison celebrates that kind of work on its website.)

“When we’re dealing with technology, there’s no reason not to extend beyond the borders of the state,” Sandeen said. Still, she stressed that “our emphasis is and always will be within the state of Wisconsin.”

UW-Extension’s more aggressive play in the adult student market is also drawing questions from institutions in the system that already serve those students. Giving UW-Extension the authority to grant degrees, critics said, could potentially “cannibalize” enrollments at other colleges and further strain their finances.

Beverly Kopper, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, was one of two chancellors to provide written testimony in a public hearing on the mission change. In an email to the Board of Regents, Kopper questioned whether UW-Extension’s expanded role would overlap with efforts on her own campus -- particularly UW-Whitewater’s online bachelor’s degree program in business administration.

“Let me say unequivocally that no one questions UW-Extension’s entrepreneurial ability, its commitment to serving adult students or its ability to operationalize the Wisconsin Idea,” Kopper wrote. “However, rather than supporting a change in mission, we recommend that UW-Extension refocus its efforts on taking a collaborative approach leading to the development of a collaborative degree program that addresses the roadblocks identified by a number of the UW campuses.”

Robert M. Meyer, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Stout, raised similar concerns about his institution’s online degree-completion program in management. Instead of creating a new program, the system should consider piloting the existing one in a competency-based format, he said in an email.

“We agree with the intent to increase the access of nontraditional students to degree-completion programs in business and management,” Meyer wrote. “However, UW-Stout and other comprehensive institutions in the UW System are better positioned to address those needs. Precious resources should be directed at making whatever alterations are needed in our current programs to address unfilled needs, rather than embarking on completely new programs that will duplicate current efforts, require additional infrastructure and create internal competition for students.”

The back and forth between Meyer and Sandeen hints at logistical speed bumps. In her response, Sandeen said UW-Stout “refused to work with UW-Extension to develop a bachelor’s degree in business and management.” Meyer disagreed with that version of events, saying the university was interested in a certificate program but was “cautious about embarking on developing a full degree program.”

Those kinds of disagreements may be why UW-Extension pushed for a mission change. The “overarching motivation” behind the decision was a desire for the university system to be able to produce competency-based programs more quickly, Sandeen said.

UW-Extension is stressing the difference in format to calm concerns that its forthcoming degrees will steal students from other parts of the system. Online competency-based programs, administrators said, attract a different kind of student than a traditional online course.

“We should not be circling the wagons and shooting at each other when there’s this huge number of students to be served,” Sandeen said. “We need all of our institutions firing on all cylinders.”

‘The Advantage of Starting New’

While it now has degree-granting authority, UW-Extension won’t hire its own faculty members. Instead, it will “continue to rely on regular faculty from across the UW System to develop curriculum and assessments, and to support the new degrees,” according to a press release.

Neither is UW-Extension is asking for any additional funding to support its mission change. Aaron Brower, provost and vice chancellor, said it will use services already in place -- admissions, financial aid, student records and so on -- to support students in the new degree programs. He also said UW-Extension has set aside money to create the degrees, which will recoup what it cost to build them over three to five years using tuition revenue.

For that model to work, the business and management program needs to enroll about 170 to 190 students a year, Brower said. If enrollments surpass the break-even point, UW-Extension and the partner institution share the revenue.

Brower and Sandeen said UW-Extension’s enrollment projections have so far been accurate. Its arts and science, information science and technology, and RN-to-BSN programs are all on track to recoup the initial investments within the five-year period, they said.

As UW-Extension works with the Higher Learning Commission on accreditation, it will need to design administrative structures that support the vision of a “rapid response” institution. UW-Extension may use what Brower described as “virtual” academic departments and “academic approval SWAT teams” to speedily evaluate new programs. Exactly how faculty members at institutions UW-Extension contracts with to develop the new programs will be included in those processes needs to be decided in the next year, he said.

“We’re working on a 12-month calendar, and our students are working adults,” Brower said. “From their perspective, it makes no sense that we’re holding up a process because our committees don’t meet in a timely way. … Rather than shoehorning from a traditional organization and trying to make it fit, we get the advantage of starting new.”

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