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Creating a More Adaptable and Responsive Approach to Meet Learner Needs

In order to meet the adult learners’ need for flexibility and affordability, CBE programs need to allow their students to stop and start their education easily, without penalization. 

Adapting To Meet Learner Needs

UW Flexible Option began enrolling students in January 2014, making it one of the first in the wave of modern competency-based education programs after Western Governors University broke ground for all of us. Led by UW Extended Campus, the UW Flexible Option creates degree and certificate programs by collaborating with University of Wisconsin campuses. It was the first CBE portfolio that functions across an entire state system of higher education in the country, and it remains a leader in multi-institution CBE collaboration.

UW Flexible Option has been successful: After a little over 6 years, we’re looking forward to celebrating our 1000th graduate later this summer! The CBE model has added layers of flexibility—in curriculum and support, in pricing and payment and in enrollment options—that brought new students into UW System institutions. These programs also create pathways for learners to complete degrees that they started but did not complete. This has truly “grown the pie” of UW student enrollments. 

Those flexibilities required us to function outside of traditional models of education. We needed to build new operational systems, figure out new instructional workloads and accommodate new policies from both our accreditor and the federal Department of Education. In 2019, after five years of operation, we found that the UW Flexible Option was proving to be a viable new educational pathway for adult learners, and it was time to look at it top-to-bottom to improve scalability.

One principle in our change process was that we left no stone left unturned in our assessment; everything was on the table as we considered how to improve our programming. Adult student success remained at the very center of every decision.

We called this five-year program review and change process Flex 2.0, and it took roughly 18 months to complete and implement. Throughout this process, some things that didn’t change were: allowing students to enroll, stop and restart without penalty, so students could work their education flexibly around their lives; respecting and nurturing our campus partnerships; our commitment to affordability; and our core tenets of competency-based education, such as requiring graduates to master every assessment. 

One of our most substantive changes was switching our CBE regulatory classification from direct assessment to credit-based. We were one of the first direct assessment programs in the country, and we are now the first to change from direct assessment to credit-based. As we’ll explain later in this interview, changing regulatory classification did not impact the student experience because the UW Flexible Option retained its non-term format. However, this change significantly streamlined our program development process and our ability to obtain approval to administer Title IV federal aid.  

We operate the portfolio across a university system made up of individually accredited institutions. Even though recently negotiated rulemaking makes standing up direct assessment programs easier for a single institution by only requiring the first program at an academic degree level to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education, that still would have meant dozens of individual approvals across our thirteen campus partners as we grow. 

In our previous experiences, the direct assessment CBE approval process could take months which compromised our goal of launching CBE programs that would quickly meet market needs at scale. Through a rigorous program assessment, we found that we could still deliver our CBE programming in a way that meets the needs of our adult learners under the credit-based classification, which is a more administratively efficient approval process than direct assessment. Both the U.S. Department of Education and our regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, couldn’t have been more supportive in helping UW Flexible Option succeed throughout this process, as they, too, try to navigate the policies and regulations retrofitted to CBE from traditional educational models.

Beyond that regulatory change, we also implemented nearly three dozen other improvements in our programming. This includes, but is not limited to, improving academic calendar, changing our budget and compensation models, adjusting the roles and responsibilities of our support services, creating a tuition-lock program called the Flex Tuition Guarantee and building the foundation for a new phase of program development. 

Obstacles Adults Face When It Comes to Their Education 

The most significant obstacle is time. There are really two facets to this: finding time in a busy adult’s schedule, and then lining that time up with what postsecondary training is available. Some adults may simply not have time—between raising a family, working and taking care of elderly parents—to dedicate to schooling. And those who do find the time for postsecondary education may not be aligned to support their attendance in a traditional course. Instead of two and a half hours for an evening course on a weekday, they might instead be able to patch together several twenty-minute chunks throughout the day. This has an equity implication, too. Available time is scarcer for individuals from lower socioeconomic statuses, making it even more difficult to both earn and afford the credentials necessary for economic advancement. 

Time is an obstacle at a macro level, too: Adult learners are much more likely to start and stop their coursework, sometimes needing to take years off between classes, as they confront new challenges outside the classroom. On top of that, adult learners do not want to be limited to 15-week periods in the fall and spring when enrolling in programs. They need education to be available when they’re ready for it. University policies, curricula and faculty/staff contracts are not always forgiving to this element, having commonly been designed around a cohort of residential 18- to 22-year-olds who attend school full time, for four straight years with summers off. In these ways, even adult learners who are eager for additional postsecondary education and training may be perpetually shut out because of a mismatch between their demands for flexibility and the university’s delivery model for programming and services.

While this hasn’t been a particularly revelatory answer to your question, we think it’s essential to keep coming back to this as a core challenge that postsecondary institutions need to be aware of and respond to. There are some vanguard institutions leading the charge to democratize postsecondary education for adult learners, but as a national system, there is a long way to go. Time, in the form of the credit-hour, still remains the coin of the realm of the postsecondary system. Traditional higher education has a crucial role, especially in the formative years of young adulthood, but we also acknowledge a need for systemic reform to open more viable, reputable pathways for adult learners to upskill, re-skill and complete degrees through postsecondary education. This is something we’ve intentionally focused on as we built and rebuilt the UW Flexible Option. 

Shifting Policy Perspective

Campus policies need to reflect the normalization of adult students stepping in and out of enrollment from one enrollment period to the next. Many campuses require a student who is returning to their studies to reapply for admission after only being away for a term or two. Whereas that may be appropriate eventually, a larger window for adult learners makes sense. Not having to reapply for admission is an efficiency for the student and the campus. This extends to the in-course experience as well. Since the UW Flexible Option is a non-term, credit-based program, students can bookmark their progress in a course if they cannot finish it. Their transcript is not penalized with an “F” for not having enough time; rather they may earn an “In-Progress” grade. This policy innovation could be extended well beyond CBE to help improve the academic experience for adults.

Federal financial aid also has regulations around how long a student can be on a break before the payment period needs to be reviewed. In a non-term program, a student must complete both half the time (number of weeks) and earn half the credits in an academic year to complete their payment period. If they take a break longer than 45 days (recently increased from 30) during a payment period, a portion of their aid may need to be returned, based on how much of their payment period was completed. Our programs primarily enroll returning adult and professional students, 45% of whom use federal financial aid. The very people to whom we are trying to give a leg up are punished financially if they are unable to attend at a traditional pace. Credit completion can be inconsistent because the life of a returning adult is inconsistent.

Another policy that deserves a look is regular and substantive interaction (R&S). Traditionally, R&S is based on faculty initiation of student contact. Although we certainly want faculty to proactively engage with students, it ignores the significance of student-initiated contact entirely. Higher education has long been a one-way street in terms of what we “count” and prioritizes faculty delivering content to the student. Instead, learning is a two-way street, with contact being initiated by a curious student or one who needs more help understanding a concept, which is a reality that should be reflected in federal policy.

Lessons Learned

In the early years of the UW Flexible Option, the Department of Education engaged in conversation with many stakeholder institutions, including the University of Wisconsin, about how federal policy needed to evolve to accommodate CBE. We find the Department of Ed to be responsive and interested, but federal policies change at a glacial pace. Nevertheless, through the negotiated rulemaking process, CBE-friendly policies have been approved. 

Meanwhile, our team engaged in a critical study of what it would be like to implement credit-based CBE instead of our initial design as a direct assessment CBE program. We learned that the differences between the two models were not substantively different: All of our courses were already tied to credits (a requirement of our accreditor), and we already had strong faculty engagement. In addition, we remained a non-term program.

As stated above, the biggest win for our students, partner institutions and UWEX was that we can now move through regulatory requirements more quickly when we add new programs at approved campuses, thus achieving eligibility to distribute federal financial aid more quickly.    

Other outcomes of the Flex 2.0 process include improved scalability, a better financial position, a more humane calendar for students and staff and greater consistency across our array of programs. An unexpected benefit of this large-scale project was strengthened relationships and communications across and within our teams.


As you consider expanding your college or university’s programmatic array to be more inclusive of adult learners, there are a variety of pathways worth examining. Competency-based education has proven to be a viable pathway for the University of Wisconsin System, but that doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for your programs or institutional culture. Review the regulatory guidelines from both your accreditor and the Department of Education to critically evaluate the pros, cons, costs and opportunities of different forms of non-traditional educational delivery. And if you’re exploring CBE, pay particular attention to the differences in direct assessment and credit-based delivery. 

As you build, leverage others’ experiences to avoid some of the pitfalls we had. We have found the higher ed CBE community to be helpful through the exploration and implementation phases of program development, especially those connected through the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN). Take stock of your available organizational resources, and conduct a market assessment to ensure you have a prospective student population.  Keep the target audience in the center of the bullseye. You will need to modify your operational practices and maybe even policies, but do not lose sight of your goal to meaningfully expand access to postsecondary education for adult learners. Earning a postsecondary credential from a reputable college or university has the power to change the lives of individuals, their families and communities.  When dealing with such potent impact, there is every reason to be bold in developing flexible new pathways at your institution. 

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