Ed Tech Spotlight: Western Governors University

Disruption in higher education has become a hot topic of late. With predictions about widespread university closure and speculation about which colleges will go down first, many have long been expecting a shake-up. A shake-up is certainly due. With tuition and student debt through the roof, some have even made a case against education itself, and it seems that something must give. So, what is holding the higher education revolution back? The Western Governors University twenty -one year story of innovation and red tape is a case study in regulatory obstacles to change in higher education.

Western Governors University (WGU) was founded in 1997 by 19 state governors after a meeting to address common higher education problems in their respective states. As the first online-only, competency-based university, it promised to not only make higher education more convenient, but to fundamentally change how higher education is packaged and understood. Starting a new university proved more difficult than the governors expected, however. College accreditation institutions, which decide whether a university’s degrees mean anything, refused to endorse WGU. Several years passed before WGU could convince them to accredit the university, the most common hang-up being that it lacked on-site faculty or faculty governance—basically that it didn’t fit the mold of a traditional liberal arts college or university. WGU’s patience paid off though, and it began to expand. The school now serves over 98,000 students.

At WGU, students progress based on how well they have mastered content rather than based on how much time they spend in a classroom. This form of education is known as competency-based curriculum. Competency-based curriculum harnesses the power of technology to quickly adapt courses and lessons to a student’s needs. The curriculum uses tests to determine how much a student already knows about a topic then allows the student to skip parts of a course or lesson that the student has already mastered.

Traditional models of credit granting, such as those based on the Carnegie unit, use the amount of time spent in the classroom studying a specific topic as a measure of how well students have learned that topic. This inevitably involves wasted time and misses the point, since students master topics at different rates and the mechanics of a single teacher with a room full of students do not allow for personalized learning. Technological advances have made teaching different students at different speeds possible, and WGU is using that technology to meet students’ needs.

While its pedagogical and technological innovations are fascinating, WGU’s price tag innovations are likely what make it most alluring. Unlike some online schools, WGU has used its flexibility and innovation to truly help students, rather than just line its own pockets. WGU established a fixed cost for enrolling in its six-month semesters (an average of about $3500 per semester across all programs) but allows students to add and complete courses at any time during the semester. This open enrollment policy gives students the chance to progress entirely at their own pace, often finishing degrees sooner than students at traditional universities, further reducing the cost of the degree. The low cost combined with the flexible timing of online learning, plus WGU’s focus on degrees in high-demand fields allows WGU to serve a broad base of unique students. The average age of students enrolled at WGU is 36, much older than the average university, revealing WGU’s ability to educate and lift the entire workforce.

True to its founding by state leaders, WGU also partners with states, most recently Ohio, to provide local solutions and help states achieve their education goals. Here, too, WGU displays exactly the kind of innovative thinking education needs, as students today face a rapidly-changing labor market and a locally-endorsed online university is a perfect solution to prepare young students and adult learners for workforce changes.

Despite WGU’s obvious successes, being an innovative force in education is still challenging. The early fight for accreditation was only the beginning of outdated and complex regulations that have hampered WGU’s ability to succeed. Just last year, the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) audited WGU and declared that it should return $700 million in federal aid its students received. The ruling was based on a requirement from the Higher Education Act that universities provide “regular and substantive interaction” between students and instructors. Regulations like this one were created to punish online universities that use online platforms as an excuse to provide no support to their students. But, WGU provides incredible student support, enjoying a 92% satisfaction rating among students. This support comes from Program Mentors, who have master’s degrees and work experience in the field students are studying. These mentors are a key part of WGU’s method and help students through their courses as well as the policies and procedures of the university. However, since they are not officially the instructors of the courses students are taking, their support counts for very little according to the law. This regulation—which was designed in a different age to protect students—is now harming students by threatening to damage an innovative university that provides a quality education at a low price.

Ultimately, WGU is a wonderful example of technological innovation in higher education. However, outdated and misapplied regulations are threatening its ability to help educate our rapidly-adapting workforce. There are certainly bad actors in the online university world that deserve to be exposed, but their malfeasance should not be a reason to penalize schools like WGU that are making great strides in online education.

In Depth: Education

An excellent education has long been recognized as key to the American Dream. Unfortunately, the current monopolistic and expensive K-12 education system is failing our students, leaving them unprepared for college, careers, or life. Similarly, our higher education system is leaving students with higher debt burdens and fewer career guarantees…

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