The University of Wisconsin System was a bit late to the digital education party, but at least it’s not a no-show.

The UW System is moving toward a “flexible degree” program built on flat-fee, at-your-own-pace online education, news that should be applauded by prospective students, business owners and state legislators. That’s true even if some elements of the education community itself remain suspicious of how well it will work.

While the UW is a relative latecomer to granting flexible online degrees, it already offers 4,600 online courses. It also has a huge advantage not possessed by most of its competitors – a quality brand that can be marketed well beyond the state’s borders.

UW System President Kevin Reilly and UW-Extension Chancellor Ray Cross were joined by Gov. Scott Walker last month in announcing the “flexible degree” program, which will be rolled out over the next year or so. Skeptics quickly asked if the program will undercut the UW’s traditional campuses, how the tuition structure will work, whether quality can be upheld and how to guard against academic cyber-cheaters.

Legitimate questions, but here is why the flexible degree program will become an asset to the UW and the state:

It will create more degree-holders. Because the state has 13 four-year UW campuses and 21 private colleges and universities, one might think Wisconsin has an above-average share of adults with college degrees. Not so. Wisconsin ranks below the U.S. average of adults with four-year degrees, which has a direct effect on workforce diversity and income. At least 700,000 adults in Wisconsin have some college credits. If even one-third of them wrapped up a degree online, the percentage of adults with a degree would quickly climb to the U.S. average.

It’s well-suited to older students. Few adults in their 30s and 40s want to be the Rodney Dangerfield character in “Back to School,” rubbing elbows with much younger students on campus. Jobs, kids and life get in the way. Signing up for online classes that produce a degree is another matter, however. It’s a movie with a happy ending for returning students.

It could give promising high-school students a head start. Given that “gifted and talented” programs in Wisconsin schools are under-funded and under-appreciated, how about giving some of the state’s college-bound kids a head start online? They could earn credits before they ever set foot on campus.

It will help businesses train workers faster for key jobs. The online program will initially focus on some of Wisconsin’s largest skills gaps – information technology, health care and business and management. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, those are three sectors with a growing demand for workers. Maybe the UW can even produce a few “virtual welders,” if that’s what it takes. 

It will help the UW confront its budget problems. The program is less about creating new courses than repackaging and reformatting current offerings. It will also tap into courses outside the UW itself, when needed. If it is modeled after successful programs such as Western Governors University, it will begin with public and private pledges and become self-sustaining over time. Students who take courses through WGU are eligible for state financial aid in their home states. Budgets are forcing colleges and universities into larger classes, anyway. Why not use online classes to teach well in larger settings?

It will become an export industry. Nearly 10 years ago, the Wisconsin Technology Council identified “workforce education” as a cluster poised for growth. In its report, “Vision 2020: A Model Wisconsin Economy,” the Tech Council urged making Wisconsin a center for workforce education and retraining, including content development, delivery and credentialing. One recommendation called for “shared plans and strategies to increase the export of high-technology workforce education products to foreign markets and the import of foreign customers for high-technology workforce education services.”

Online education helps take geography out of that equation. It allows marketing of the UW brand to a world that already equates that brand to quality.

There will always be a demand for face-to-face education because so much of the educational experience is about the teacher-student relationship. However, in a world with more digital natives – people at ease with learning, communicating and much more online – the UW’s flexible degree program offers yet another tool for the times.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.