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Melanie Kruvelis: Wake up and smell the Adderall

By Melanie Kruvelis, Editorial Page Editor
Published January 31, 2013

Imagine a world where you can earn a college degree without walking into a single classroom.

Actually, considering the fact I’m skipping class right now, maybe I should rephrase that — imagine getting a bachelor’s without ever knowing where your ecology lab is, and none of the guilt that comes with being too lazy to watch the iTunesU lectures.

Sound too good to be true? Not for the fighting Badgers.

Last week, the University of Wisconsin finalized a new program that allows students to earn a degree not based credit hours but — get this — what they actually know.

Dubbed the Flexible Option plan, the program is pretty straightforward: Degree-seekers independently prepare for exams written by professors who specialize in one of the four majors offered by Flex Option. A couple of good exam scores, combined with online coursework and outside credits and, bam, you've got yourself a degree.

Proponents are calling the program visionary, revolutionary — the future of university education. "This is a new direction in American higher education,” said University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Reilly. Even the governor of Wisconsin backed the program, saying — oh dear god, am I about to non-ironically quote Gov. Scott Walker?

“We can maintain high standards,” Walker said of the program. “And we can still give non-traditional learners another way to finish their degrees.”

According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, educators in Wisconsin developed the idea after noticing the relatively small number of degree-holders in the state. About 20 percent of the state’s workforce had a stockpile of credits but no degree to show for it. Given that a college degree is just about as much of a prerequisite for the job market as being able to sign your name on a contract, officials pushed for a program that allows students to get that bachelor’s degree on their own terms.

An education that’s self-taught and self-directed? A bachelor’s that’s based on what you actually learn and not how many credits you’ve slept through? A relatively cheap degree from a world-renowned university, not wherever that chick in pajamas is blabbering about in those YourEdConnect commercials?

Seems to make sense. So, naturally, people are spazzing.

“I don’t want (Flex Option) to be a misstep,” said Wisconsin state Sen. Jennifer Shilling (D–32). UW professors echoed the senator’s concerns, worrying about watered-down degrees and a disconnect from campus life. “There’s got to be very rigorous documentation that the degree will live up to the quality of (the school’s) name,” said Mark Cook, a professor at the Madison campus.

In all fairness, these anxieties aren’t new. Ever since Coursera and other massive open online course sites popped up, some educators across the country began to fret over the future of universities. If they haven’t gotten their bow ties in a bunch over the Internet’s impact on their institutions, then they’re discrediting the MOOC movement altogether. “Can you be successful in truly meaningful ways without going to college?” asked Engineering Prof. James Paul Holloway in a recent piece for Consider magazine. “The answer for most of you is ‘No.’ ”

Most of the hubbub surrounds whether these fast-track, DIY degrees can replace a full-on university education. After all, no matter how much you verbally assault your MacBook, it’s not going to give you any feedback on your essay, much less a recommendation letter.

But as our dear friend Scott Walker knows, these programs aren’t necessarily a substitute for a campus education. “It’s one more way to get your degree,” Walker said. “I don’t see it as a replacement.”

And for the first time in his life, Walker’s right. The Flex Option plan is primarily aimed at adults who didn’t have time to finish school. Moreover, these self-taught programs also give liberal arts graduates the chance to beef up their CV, after the cruel world reminded them that a humanities degree has approximately the same value as a sock full of nickels (and it’s a very small sock). Because when every entry-level job asks for 10 years of experience, five references and fluency in Java, Python and/or C++, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to take a Coursera class in coding. Unless you want to crash on Mom’s papasan forever.

I saw this self-guided liberal arts paranoia myself the other day. I stopped by a friend’s apartment and noticed a calculus book open on the table.

“You just graduated,” I said to my friend. “What’s with all the derivatives?”

He sighed. “Are you kidding me? I’m a Screen Arts and Culture major — my degree isn’t worth sack.”

And the reaction’s just the same for my Political Science degree or your Spanish minor or that double concentration in Deep Ocean Literature and Creative Toxicology. Not that these majors are useless — long live the humanities! But when the jobs don’t rush to your door, strengthening your skills isn’t a bad option. Presumably, our universities want us to grow up and be successful so we can buy lots of $100 Wolverine fishing reels. If some online courses help us get there, what’s the big deal?

The real issue seems to be this break from a traditional, on-campus education. “Universities are the unique intellectual space,” Holloway said in his Consider article. “The university is the place where we grow.”

True. There’s really nothing that can replace the college experience — unless, of course, you find another porch in another town to butt-chug beers on. But I guess Holloway is more interested in the dialogue that comes out of the college classroom, like this one I’m hearing right now —

“Did you see him puke in that sharkbowl last night?”

In all seriousness, critique and communication — the most obvious benefits to an in-class education — are incredibly important. But the intellectual world doesn’t stop once you drive past the Big House. Chances are that if you’re motivated enough to teach yourself a thing or two, you’ll be able to find fellow nerds to collaborate with. Insert the names of a bunch of dropouts who made it big if you don’t believe me. It may not be as easy as it is on campus, but hey — you’re already reading books that don’t start with the prefix 'face.' You’re gonna make it, you overachiever, you.

The face of education is changing faster than Kim Kardashian’s. And for educators, that's kind of frightening. But just as students are adjusting to a world with minimal job security and maximum loan burdens, universities must adjust too and back away from these xenophobic fears of the Internet. Wake up and smell the Adderall, higher education. Oh, and mind if I buy a couple of pills?

Melanie Kruvelis can be reached at melkruv@umich.edu.


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