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Watch out for UW-Extension mission creep

by Noel Radomski, WISCAPE Director and Associate Researcher | Sep 9, 2015

At the Thursday, September 10, UW System Board of Regents Education Committee meeting, an important and controversial agenda item will be discussed: “First Reading of a Proposed Change to the UW-Extension Mission Statement." (Here is the current UW-Extension select mission, and here is the proposed revision.) This proposal is controversial for at least two reasons: First, the proposed change would expand the scope of UW​-Extension from “​all Wisconsin people…” to “…people of Wisconsin and beyond…” And second, the proposed change would authorize the UW-Extension to offer “professionally-focused and cross-disciplinary competency-based certificates, associate degrees, and baccalaureate degrees in the areas of business and management,” whereas ​currently it is not accredited and thus not authorized to offer for-credit courses and degree programs. In a period of state budget cuts to current UW-Extension programs and services, it is highly questionable to expand the select mission’s scope. Here are two reasons to table the proposed revision:

  1. The UW Colleges campuses, and the regional universities and doctoral campuses, are already accredited and offer an array of online, residential, and hybrid certificate and baccalaureate degrees -- as well as professional and graduate degree programs. Why should UW-Extension duplicate the UW Flex program which is offered by the UW Colleges and select public universities?
  2. Why prohibit statewide public dialogue on the proposed revision to the UW-Extension mission by not including it into the UW System new strategic planning process, which began with the September 1st listening session at UW-La Crosse (there will be 13 more listening sessions)? The UW System strategic plan is expected to be approved by the spring of 2016. Currently, the UW System president and Board of Regents are recommending one public hearing presided over by a ​regent, followed by discussion and approval ​by the board. Changing the select mission of UW-Extension deserves discussion and feedback in the development of the UW System strategic plan, not a one-off public hearing.
      

The number of problems associated with the proposed revision to UW-Extension’s select mission increases substantially when one looks at the “Update on UW Flex Option” agenda item and the associated two-page document, which will be discussed at the Friday, September 11, UW System Board of Regents meeting. Before any expansion of the UW Flex Option is pursued and before the UW System Board of Regents votes to modify the current UW-Extension select mission they need to receive updated, accurate information on the faulty and outdated UW Flex Option business model ​that was used to grant initial approval to begin the UW Flex Option program. Below are a seven significant problems and associated questions about the proposed revised UW-Extension select mission, which should be answered before the UW System Board of Regents introduces a motion.

  1. According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau Information Paper #680 (May 23, 2013), former UW Extension/Colleges Chancellor Ray Cross received approval to spend $10.4 million from UW System’s tuition revenue appropriation balance to initiate UW Flex Option. However, a January 6, 2014, Milwaukee Journal article noted that $8 million in UW System funds was earmarked to launch the UW Flexible Option program. The article also explained that $1 million was allocated to cover all the UW Flex Option students’ tuition costs because the UW Flex Option program was not accredited and because they did not receive approval by the U.S. Department of Education to use Title IV funds (e.g., Pell Grants, subsidized student loans, and work-study). What is confusing is that the “Update on UW Flex Option” document states that the program is generating over $1 million in gross revenues in fiscal year 2014-2015. What is the source of the gross revenues? Is it from the UW System student tuition reserves?
  2. The LFB Paper #680 noted that UW Flex Option program business model estimated that in 2013 they needed to hire 68 new employees and that they needed to enroll 1,400 so that they would not operate with losses. However, according to the “Update on the UW Flexible Option” after twenty months of operation, approximately 500 students are enrolled (not full-time equivalent students).
  3. None of the UW System colleges and universities expressed interest in collaborating with UW-Extension in expanding the UW Flex ​Option program to offer the proposed online, flexible, business and management baccalaureate degree. That is the reason why UW-Extension wants to modify their current UW-Extension select mission. Does this provide enough reason to expand the scope of the UW-Extension select mission and potentially duplicate future UW Flex Option programs with the UW System institutions, especially in a period of significant cuts to UW-Extension, UW Colleges campuses, and the regional and doctoral universities?
  4. UW-Extension is not accredited by the Higher Learning Commission to offer for-credit courses and for-credit programs, nor have they submitted paperwork to begin the accreditation process. Until they receive accreditation no students can be recruited, which further delays enrollment and tuition revenue, and offers more questions about the accuracy of the UW Flex Option business model.
  5. One of the reasons used to justify expanding the UW-Extension select mission and thus allow UW-Extension to design and offer a business and management baccalaureate degree is that their market analysis shows that their competitors are for-profit colleges and universities in the Midwest. The problem with their market analysis is that they compared their proposed business and management degree not with the for-profit’s business and management degree, but with for-profit’s business and technology and business and information technology degrees.
  6. There has been no summative or formative objective evaluation of the current UW Flex Option program. Before the UW System Board of Regents approve the proposed expansion of the UW-Extension select mission, they need to receive, review, and discuss an objective analysis of the UW Flex Option programs.
  7. Also, the question of return on investment should be answered: was the allocation of $8 or $10 million from the UW System’s student tuition reserves, the hiring of up to 68 new employees, and enrolling 500 part-time students a worthwhile investment? Is it a worthwhile investment in comparison to the other online, flexible degree options offered by the accredited, public Western Governor University which now serves more than 36,000 students, graduated more than 50,000 students​ -- nearly 20,000 are first-generation students​ -- in ​15 years, and offers significantly more degree programs in teaching, business, and information technology than the UW Flex Option program?
      

Based on the aforementioned questions, several recommendations should be considered.

  1. Integrate the question of expanding and revising the UW-Extension select mission into the UW System strategic planning process, including the upcoming 13 listening sessions.
  2. Conduct a summative and formative objective evaluation of the current UW Flex Option program.
  3. Carry out a comparative analysis of the UW Flex Option program with the accredited, public, Western Governors University.
  4. The UW System Board of Regents should table or refer the motion to revise the UW-Extension select mission.
  5. The results of the objective summative and formative evaluation and the comparative analysis should not be dismissed because the UW Flex Option program was created by Governor Walker and then UW Extension/Colleges Chancellor Cross. The budget cuts to UW System colleges campus, universities, and Extension after the 2013-2015 and 2015-2017 biennial budgets should preclude political decisions from outweighing objective analysis.
      
What are your thoughts? Please comment using the form below or email us.

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6 comments

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  1. Noel Radomski
    9-14-2015
    Facts: When you have time can you send me an email and provide me more information? Thank you.  noel.radomski​ at wisc.edu

  2. Facts
    9-14-2015
    "None of the UW System colleges and universities expressed interest in collaborating with UW-Extension in expanding the UW Flex ​Option program to offer the proposed online, flexible, business and management baccalaureate degree."

    I happen to know for a fact that this is not true, regardless of UW-Ext assertions. Fascinating.

  3. observer
    9-11-2015
    $10 million to serve 500 part-time students? That amount would operate UW Colleges, serving more than 14,000 students, for more than a year and a half or so--almost enough time for students to earn an AA&S degree. Some other initiatives (BAAS) are very costly experiments, too. UW Colleges are a cost-effective pathway to a better future for rising families (and, in this economy, sinking families). Perhaps an efficiency study of UWC/UWEX Central Administration would be beneficial to help them find their way?

  4. Noel Radomski
    9-10-2015

    Chirpy: Good question. UW Extension wants to create a new UW Flex online program, the bachelor's degree in business and management, but in their market analysis they did not look at a bachelor's degree in business and management, but rather their market analysis looked at a bachelor's degree in business and technology and a bachelor's degree in business and information technology. It's not an "apples-to-apples" market analysis of their proposed bachelor's degree in business and management. Does that answer your question?

    Noel


  5. chirpy
    9-10-2015

    Can you expand on this?:

    :One of the reasons used to justify expanding the UW-Extension select mission and thus allow UW-Extension to design and offer a business and management baccalaureate degree is that their market analysis shows that their competitors are for-profit colleges and universities in the Midwest. The problem with their market analysis is that they compared their proposed business and management degree not with the for-profit’s business and management degree, but with for-profit’s business and technology and business and information technology degrees."

    Don't understand it.


  6. Barbara Ingham
    9-10-2015
    Excellent commentary on today's discussion. As an integrated ​specialist with UW-Extension, professor and faculty member on the UW-Madison campus, I am very concerned that UWEX is at this stage with an idea that is as ill-conceived as change to the UWEX mission. UWEX needs to focus on their core strengths and build on those, rather than competing with other campuses to strengthen the workforce in the state. I think if you looked behind the curtain, you would find that this is a pet project of 1 or 2 people that is not founded in reality.

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