Gov. Scott Walker and others have announced a flexible-degree program for University of Wisconsin System students.
The program is designed to get more people enrolled in Wisconsin college degree programs without stepping onto a campus. It aims to give college credit for knowledge that students have gained from the workplace or other life experiences.
While many for-profit universities are using similar models of learning, UW would be the first public university in the country to try the flexible-degree program.
The governor announced the initiative at the clinical care skills lab of UW Health with leaders of the UW Hospital, the UW System and UW Extension.
On Tuesday Walker said the program provides a new model for delivering higher education. He said it will help the state give students the necessary skills at an affordable price.
"The concept is simple," Walker said. "It's saying we want to be flexible, adapt to the needs that an ever-changing workforce and student body has, and allow people to access a University of Wisconsin degree in a variety of different ways."
The classes would be conducted online, allowing students to work at their own pace and giving working adults easier access to higher education.
Students will be able to get credit for what they can prove competency in, at first in fields like health care, engineering and technology.
"You got to prove what you know, prove what you can do to a level that we find acceptable," said UW-Extension Chancellor Ray Cross, who will oversee the program.
The program is aimed at getting the estimated 20 percent of state residents with some college experience to finish their college degrees, or allow those who are unemployed to gain new skills to get back into the workforce.
UW leaders are calling it a "transformational change" to the university, but some students are skeptical.
Maureen Landsverk is spending the summer at home from the University of Minnesota, taking in-person classes at UW-Madison and one online course from Minnesota.
"I like going to class too much," Landsverk said of the possibility of online classes. "You meet people, have an experience. It's a lot different taking a class online."
Prospective students touring campus also said the tradition of the university was important to their decision.
"Part of college is the experience," said Josh Algrem, a prospective student from Naperville, Ill. "The dorm experience, meeting friends. And even in Madison you get the urban experience."
But Josh's dad, Jeff, disagreed, saying this could give parents or returning students an opportunity.
"If you don't have the ability to come to campus or you can't afford it, to get an education from the University of Wisconsin is unbelievable and to do it that way would be amazing," Jeff Algrem said.
Neither UW officials nor the governor could say Tuesday how much the program would cost the state or how much it would cost a student, saying those details are still being worked out.
But they said they believe the cost could be minimal to develop testing systems for those competency levels. Given that, there's a possibility the program could be a new revenue stream for UW System, officials said.