STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK. Maybe you're one of the millions of Americans who attended college but never had a chance to finish. And you have dozens or scores or hundreds of credits just sitting there that don't quite add up to a degree. The University of Wisconsin system has introduced an alternative way to finish your degree by earning credits based on what you already know. It's the so-called Flex Option.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
No classes required - just prove you're competent in the subject. Marge Pitrof of member station WUWM reports from Milwaukee.
MARGE PITROF, BYLINE: This summer, Katie Hyland got her dream job at Children's Hospital in Milwaukee. She's standing outside the hospital, pointing to the landing pad on the roof.
KATIE HYLAND: We take the helicopter, Flight for Life, and we go and pick the kids up and bring them back to be treated at Children's.
PITROF: Hyland works on the transport team. Despite today's heat, she's zipped into her blue flame retardant flight suit while walking to her post.
HYLAND: Some of these kids that we pick up are extremely sick, so it's really being able to use the skill I've developed over the past five years in the ICU.
PITROF: Five years ago, Hyland earned an Associate Degree in nursing at a for-profit college, but never did get her Bachelor's.
HYLAND: I had looked into taking classes in the past and life just kind of got in the way.
PITROF: Now she needs that degree to keep her job. The hospital's given Hyland three years to get it, and she thinks she could finish in half that time using Wisconsin's nursing flex. She says she's already learned plenty, on the job.
HYLAND: The only thing that I'm worried about is the adult portion of it, so just re-teaching myself that, pulling out some of my old nursing books and looking over old medical-surgical stuff.
DORIS SCHONEMAN: Each student will look at the competencies and determine what they need more on.
PITROF: That's Doris Schoneman. She's helping create the nursing flex program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She says the school decided to start counting experience, because there are thousands of Katie Hylands. Faculty is designing ways to measure what those working adults already know.
SCHONEMAN: Some of them have exams, some of them have case study analysis, papers, and some have portfolio review.
PITROF: Faculty will also grade the assessments, and if the students pass, they'll get the course credits. Schoneman says an advisor will guide each student, but the program does not include classmates or face time with instructors.
SCHONEMAN: The student needs to be self-directed and be able to set goals and to meet them. It's not any easier; it's just a different way.
PITROF: Different ways continue emerging in higher ed - as students seek degrees in less time, at less cost. Cliff Adelman is a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. He's among those warning that the rush to lure students could prompt some schools to cut academic corners.
CLIFF ADELMAN: I'm not saying everybody's going to do it, but there are going to be people who will. They're going to take the easy way out.
PITROF: Adelman notes multiple drawbacks when eliminating the classroom, but Sylvia Manning insists the U.W. System will maintain its rigor. She's president of the Higher Learning Commission, which approved the new flex plan.
SYLVIA MANNING: We don't see how the risk is particularly higher in these sorts of programs than it is in any other sort of program.
PITROF: Across the country, a few small schools have offered competency-based programs. Administrators here say Wisconsin will be the first large public university system to un-tether credits from class time. For NPR News, I'm Marge Pitrof in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.