University of Wisconsin System officials explained their progress on the flexible option degree to a Senate committee Tuesday, allowing legislators to clear  concerns they had over the new program.

The Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges heard from UW System President Kevin Reilly and two other officials who are developing the flexible option degree. That degree, they said, would be an innovative way for them to help nontraditional students.

The flexible option degree will start next fall in four campuses and would give regular UW System degrees to nontraditional students based on online assessments.

But that degree is innovative – the first of its kind in a public university – because it “decouples instruction from assessment,” according to UW Colleges and UW Extension Chancellor Ray Cross. Students can learn the content anywhere, whether an online course or through work experience, and get a degree if they can show their knowledge on assessments.

Two senators said they were concerned about whether the flexible degrees, which are regular degrees from UW System institutions, would “cheapen” the value of a UW System degree.

Reilly said the UW System’s degrees would maintain their quality because faculty members who oversee current programs are the ones who set up the flexible option degrees.

“We want the flexible option to be controlled by the same faculty,” Reilly said.

As the program will be online only, Cross said “wraparound advising,” a system where advisers check in with students often, would be necessary. He said not having that kind of advising is where other programs in the private sector have fallen short.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, asked whether a student could just test out of everything, but Cross said the number of people doing so would be small.

UW social work professor Aaron Brower said the new flexible option program would only “supplement” existing traditional programs, such as the typical college or nontraditional programs the UW System already has. Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, the committee chair, agreed.

“The flexible option is not going to be an option for every student,” Harsdorf said.

Brower said the flexible option program only gives another option to nontraditional students, one that many of them could not currently take advantage of because of the few online degree programs that will be offered this fall.

UW-Milwaukee will offer four degree programs this fall: two in nursing, one in diagnostic imaging and one in information technology. UW Colleges will offer general education courses and an Associate of Arts and Science degree.

Although those are the only programs students can start this fall, faculty across the system are working on developing more.

Reilly also talked about the importance of flexibilities the Legislature granted the UW System in the past session. This includes flexibility with building projects and block grants that allowed the system to give money to campuses without specifying as much on where chancellors would need to use it for.

He also apologized to the committee about the more than $34 million in overpayments at the UW System since a new human resources system replaced a nearly 40-year-old system that Reilly said was close to breaking any day.