The Latest Threat to Your College Degree

In the career world, education and experience are locked in a constant battle. Which should you list first on your resume? Or, more important, which should you dedicate your time to for the next several years in order to improve your job prospects?

It's not an easy question. Many jobs require a bachelor's or master's degree as a base qualification, even if an applicant already has years of skill for the job. And with more computerized human-resource departments, breaking through the automated filters without such attributes, no matter how nominal, becomes more difficult. On the other hand, working full-time allows you not only to learn on the job but also to earn a paycheck. What's the right move?

Both, perhaps. Wisconsin is about to launch the Flexible Option, a competency-based education program that allows professionals with experience to test out of entire courses on their way to earning a degree within the University of Wisconsin system. What does this mean for the current value of a degree and for the institutions providing them?

Skills or social maturity
The concept of a competency-based program questions the purpose of higher education. Is it to learn job skills, or learn how to think critically? Accepting this testing program as equivalent to taking a class points to the former. And it boils down the college equation to a simple return on investment. If your degree doesn't result in an increase in income -- and any other benefits of attending college are minimal -- there's little point in having that degree.

Wisconsin's Flexible Option costs $2,250 for an "all-you-can-learn" buffet, with which you are able to finish as many competencies and assessments as you can in three months. Or you can take it one competency at a time for $900. Comparatively, this could be a very good deal and hurts the case for many for-profit institutions:

Company School Cost per Credit Hour* Student Body Age 25 and Above
DeVry  (NYSE: DV  ) DeVry University $609 58% 
Bridgepoint  (NYSE: BPI  )   Ashford University $413 88%
Apollo  (NASDAQ: APOL  )   University of Phoenix $440 83%
ITT  (NYSE: ESI  )  ITT Tech $520 55%
Corinthian  (NASDAQ: COCO  )   Everest College $416 47% 

*For Business Administration or equivalent, lower division when divided.

Many programs require 100 credits or more to graduate at those credit-hour rates. And given that the majority of students at these schools are above 25 years old, seemingly with work experience that they could apply toward a degree, the chance to earn a significant amount of credits in three months at a flat rate is much more enticing and a greater return on investment.

If it catches on...
Wisconsin will be the first major institution to attempt this program. Critics say that a simple test for mastery does not capture the real value of attending a class, working with peers, and discussing the class material in-depth. Additionally, professors worry whether they can truly assess granting credit through one exam.

In the wider view, this program represents the many structural changes education is undergoing. Incorporating new technology, battling higher tuition costs, and directing students to take on studies that can help them become more successful in attaining a career will continue to push the usually slow-to-change realm of education. While there will be losers from such changes, such as for-profit schools that may not be able to adapt, there will also be winners, such as those who provide the technology and services that power these programs.

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  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2013, at 3:05 PM, westies01 wrote:

    I received an Associates from a state school that offered the entire program online. This was not some fly by night school (or like a mail order degree) - it's a state run school with a physical campus, that offers some degree programs online. Do yourself the favor - don't bother doing it online - attend the actual campus classrooms. I've found that employers are leery/hesitant of online degrees because they think of mail order types of scams. It's not just older employers who are leery of all this computer age business. I think anyone who has obtained their degree by going to classes on campus don't "believe" that the same education is obtained online. I even applied for a job that had the specific question on their application of whether you obtained your degree online or not. I've learned my lesson.

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2013, at 3:11 PM, TheBorogroves wrote:

    I do believe you are reporting something that could be considered "old news" by now. Go look at Western Governors University which has already had this model in place for years (Except it is around 3k for a 6 month all you can learn term instead of 3 months for 2.2k). I am glad to see people are following suit because competency based learning could do a lot to restore the reputation of online learning after for profit colleges drove that reputation into the ground.

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2013, at 6:01 PM, erini wrote:

    Skill jobs require vocational school, University NEVER was supposed to give the graduates nothing more them KNOWLEDGE and proof that he/she has thinking skill. University is NOT a vocational school. In the process of a crazy hunt after money the perception was formed that University should create a worker ready to perform as corporation require, nothing more wrong then that! Corporations should take a graduate (who has proven that has a brain) and train the person. Requiring from the graduates to get trained using their own resources is another saving that CEOs (who pay themselves hundreds of millions of $$ a year) want to make to increase their profit.

  • Report this Comment On October 08, 2013, at 1:56 AM, redoctober90 wrote:

    The real problem is not the universities' education themselves, it's the gouging of prices. I find it hard to believe that schools can charge upwards of $1,000 a credit for what essentially works out to be 12-15 hours of work.

    Community colleges are a waste of time too unfortunately....many have instructors looking for an easy paycheck, and classes often turn out A's just for showing up.

    There are some good schools out there, especially in the STEM programs (not all of them are created equal; some lack advanced thinking). I went to Penn State of all places, and despite all the hoopla regarding the football team, pretty much everyone in the program I participated in found employment in the field within a year without a graduate degree.

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