The University of Wisconsin Colleges are well on their way to developing a first of its kind flexible degree program to allow non-traditional students to finish their degrees on their own time.

UW-Extension and UW Colleges Chancellor Ray Cross met with legislators Wednesday to promote the development of the new Flexible Option online education program.

With more than 700,000 adults in Wisconsin who have some college experience but not a full degree, Cross said the UW Flex Option program is intended to give “non-traditional” students the ability to finish their college degrees on their own time and fill the skill gaps in Wisconsin’s workforce.

Cross said the state’s workforce has a skills gap in four key areas: advanced manufacturing, information technology, health care and business.

“I have talked to a lawyer who was even trying to change immigration laws to get the talents they needed,” Cross said.

To improve the situation, Cross said the Flex Option caters more to the skills aspect of education, providing assessment opportunities for adults who have experience in specific areas like advanced materials and composites, robotics and automated production and other advanced industrial processes.

The program will not use credits, the traditional currency of higher education, to measure progress, but will instead use assessments to measure experience, Cross said.

“It’s a constant process and allows for a potential quicker time to a degree,” Cross said. “What you’re going to see in this type of education is many certificates aggregated to into a degree in the future.”

Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, and Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, who chair the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges, said they were concerned about how much the program would cost.

Cross said the Flex Option will have roughly the same tuition as the average UW System school. However, students will be able to complete their courses faster or prepare outside of instruction using the assessment-only approach to gauge existing skills to reduce costs.

“Think of it as a subscription period. If your subscription period runs out, you just subscribe to the next one to finish your degree,” Aaron Brower, UW-Extension interim provost and vice chancellor, said.

Additionally, Brower said the program will help to reduce costs for students by eliminating expenditures like residency and reciprocity for out-of-state students.

“It’s more than online learning; it’s anytime learning,” Jessica Tormey, UW-Extension and UW Colleges spokesperson, said.

Rep. Pat Strachota, R-West Bend, said she was concerned about how well the program has been preparing for its upcoming launch in 2014.

According to Cross, the Higher Learning Commission in Chicago has already accredited the program and approval from the U.S. Department of Education is pending.

“This is really unique in the country and particularly for a public university to try this,” Cross said. “We technically could be the first in the country, period.”

Flex Option programs will initially limit enrollments to 10 students for each of their five programs and the number of students will then be incrementally increased by 10 each subsequent month, according to the program’s website.

The program will open for admissions on Nov. 18, with the launch date set for Jan. 2, 2014.