By this stage in the pandemic, every University of Wisconsin student has had their fair share of online education, for some, perhaps more than they care for. Standard UW classes are slated to be held online for the remainder of the spring semester and the entire summer term. The advent of online classes this semester was — as I’m sure we’re all aware — an unexpected necessity and a sudden reaction to a desperate situation.

But behind the scenes, UW has been slowly furthering its online instruction options, now looking to target non-traditional students in a way it never has before. These efforts have culminated in the establishment of the university’s first fully online degree program, which will be offered in Fall 2020.

The program offers students a degree in personal finance which can be obtained via a flexible learning schedule from anywhere in the world. In establishing the program, UW follows in the footsteps of peer institutions such as Purdue University, which established its Purdue University Global program in 2018, and Penn State which has offered online degree programs through its Penn State World Campus program since 1998. 

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Research into the effectiveness of online higher education has been relatively conclusive in the notion that online college classes present students with an experience comparable in quality to traditional classroom settings, leading to equivalent — perhaps even slightly better — student performance. One study at Columbia’s Teachers College in 2013 found the material flexibility associated with blended and online learning solutions lead to particularly positive outcomes. Another team by the US Department of Education reached similar conclusions regarding the effectiveness of online learning. 

UW has offered online learning options for over 20 years now and online enrollment has shown consistent growth. Given UW’s extensive experience offering online instruction and the empirical evidence supporting the effective nature of online learning, it comes as no surprise UW has decided to join its peer institutions in offering a fully online degree program. 

Personal finance seems to be the perfect field to support UW’s introduction into online program delivery, as UW’s financial programs are highly ranked in the nation and personal finance degrees are in ever-increasing demand, with careers in personal finance expected to grow 15% by 2026.

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UW Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a recent press release, “Personal finance is a degree that is surging in popularity nationally, and we have the #2 ranked program in the county.” 

If executed well, UW’s online degree programs stand to act as an excellent option for nontraditional students who, come fall semester, will be able to make progress toward their degree at their own pace and on their own schedule. Through online degree programs, UW hopes to open career advancement opportunities for Madison’s single parents, full-time employees and students with other full-time responsibilities. 

Right now, many UW students sit at desks in their bedrooms all over the country — or even all over the world. Finishing online worksheets and attending digital lectures, could they be getting a taste of what’s in store for UW’s next wave of less traditional students? 

John Grindal ([email protected]) is a freshman studying computer science and neurobiology.