The Latest Threat to Your College Degree

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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:

CompanySchoolCost per Credit Hour*Student Body Age 25 and Above
DeVry  DeVry University $609 58% 
Bridgepoint   Ashford University $413 88%
Apollo   University of Phoenix $440 83%
ITT   ITT Tech $520 55%
Corinthian   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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The article The Latest Threat to Your College Degree originally appeared on

Fool contributor Dan Newman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Bridgepoint Education. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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