By Duke Cheston
September 27, 2011
Online higher education has been growing by leaps and bounds over the last decade and a half, leading some to speculate that it will totally revolutionize higher education. However, so far, online education hasn’t done much to reduce prices or create flexibility in the structure of courses. One exception to this general rule is Western Governors University.
The university made headlines in early August when Texas governor Rick Perry announced that his state was forming a partnership with WGU. Although the online school is already available to Texans and everyone else in the United States, a state-based presence (a local office housing a chancellor, recruiters, and advisers) will raise publicity for the still largely unknown school.
“WGU Texas provides another flexible, affordable way for Texans to fulfill their potential and contribute their talents for years and decades to come,” said Governor Perry. How so? Let’s take a look at WGU.
Western Governors, founded in 1997 by 19 governors of western states, is a non-profit all-online university. Though established by politicians, it’s a private institution, sustaining itself on tuition dollars.
Based out of Salt Lake City, Utah, WGU is committed to helping students obtain a degree quickly and cheaply. It has largely dropped the traditional professor/students/semester model of education in favor of a “mentor-guided, competency-based model that requires students to demonstrate their knowledge rather than spending time in course work.”
Rather than attend classes taught by professors, students study by themselves, receive regular advice and encouragement from a dedicated adviser (“mentor”), and get help from experts when needed. Students can also take tests as soon as they’re ready, as opposed to waiting on professors’ and other students’ schedules. In fact, WGU’s unusual structure and unusually low cost led Time magazine to call it “the best relatively cheap university you’ve never heard of.
Compared to other accredited online colleges, it certainly is affordable. Many other online degrees cost about the same as a traditional university education. For instance, an online bachelor’s degree in business from for-profit DeVry University will cost $68,906 including fees. The same degree from the University of Phoenix, taking five courses per semester for eight semesters, will cost $72,200. These degrees are cheaper than a four-year degree from an Ivy-league school like Harvard, but they’re considerably more expensive than paying in-state tuition at a school like UNC-Chapel Hill.
By contrast, WGU charges a flat fee of about $3,000 per six-month period, depending on what degree a student is pursuing. A nursing degree, for example, costs the student more than a business degree ($3,250 per term compared to $2,890 per term). Textbooks, in the form of e-books, come free with tuition. The average student takes 30 months to graduate, meaning an average degree costs about $15,000. “The price of going here is just ridiculous,” said Ray Shawn McKinnon, an ex-pastor in North Carolina seeking a BS in human resource management through the school.
Making Western Governors even cheaper is its recent partnership with Burck Smith’s company, Straighterline.com. Straighterline, though not itself an accredited university, offers some of the cheapest college courses available (you can knock out freshman year for only $999, for example), which can then be transferred to accredited universities such as WGU.
Another technological challenge Western Governors University claims to have conquered is flexibility. McKinnon, the ex-pastor, explained this advantage by comparing WGU to some classes he had taken with another online school. He complained that his previous school was basically a “bricks and mortar” college delivered in an online format. Like most other WGU students, McKinnon (who is 30 years old) is a “non-traditional student,” a working adult going back to school (the average age is 36). He felt his previous experiences and training should have helped him move through some courses more quickly, but, with traditional semester-long classes, he couldn’t do that.
Western Governors’ unique structure solves that problem. Rather than making students go over material they may already know, WGU is competency based. Students can take their assessments—tests are given at locations (including students’ own homes) where students’ identities are verified by camera and bionic confirmation—as soon as they’re ready.
The tests are often based on industry certifications, and sometimes are actual industry certifications. Before McKinnon finishes school, for example, he’ll have to pass the Assurance of Learning exam administered by the Society for Human Resource Management. Other certifications include teaching licensure exams and various information technology exams.
Further, WGU’s flat tuition rate means students can take as many classes as they are able to finish in a given period. McKinnon is on track to finish his degree in only three terms. One graduate of WGU even claimed on an online review site that he completed a 4-year accounting degree in six months without any incoming credits.
A problem inherent to any online education is the isolating nature of it. Taking classes by yourself online entails lots of alone time, or at least lots of independent study. Add in the pressure from knowing that your future depends on your performance, and it’s a recipe for cabin fever. I personally took an online class a couple years ago to prepare for the MCAT, the medical school entrance exam. A month before test time, the stress of cramming alone in my apartment nearly drove me crazy.
Jen Woodbury, a former real-estate agent in Hawaii seeking an MBA, had a similar experience and says Western Governors has largely fixed the problem.
In a previous online program, “I did feel like a number,” she said. “WGU,” on the other hand, “was 180 degrees different…. They’ve done an excellent job of making you feel a part and not isolated.”
Part of the solution is WGU’s mentor program. The university assigns a “student mentor,” essentially a life coach, to work with students regularly—at least a phone call every other week. Also, for each course, there are also one or more “course mentors” who have specialized knowledge of the subject matter.
Woodbury, the former real-estate agent, said that despite the lack of face-to-face contact, mentors provided the sense that someone cared how you were doing. “I have to say I didn’t experience that at a traditional four-year education,” she added.
McKinnon and Woodbury also mentioned that the online forums with fellow students and academic mentors were both academically helpful and encouraging.
Of course, Western Governors hasn’t solved all the problems of online higher education. One of the things WGU doesn’t do well, it seems, is cater to young people. According to the federal Education Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the graduation rate for first-time, full-time students (i.e., typical college students) who began their studies in 2004-05 was only 16 percent.
“It does take a lot of discipline,” said McKinnon, and many college-age kids don’t seem to have enough to make WGU work for them.
But WGU mostly targets a different demographic, anyway. According to WGU spokeswoman Joan Mitchell, first-time full-time students represent less than ten percent of the student body. The average WGU student, she explained, is 36 years old. When taking this into account, the overall graduation rate is “40 percent and it’s going up,” she said. Mitchell added that 54 percent of current students are on track to graduate on time.
Indeed, WGU’s target demographic is the source of its strength: it’s a non-traditional school for non-traditional students. It has four colleges, and they’re all job-oriented: the Teachers College, the College of Business, the College of Information Technology, and the College of Health Professions. Its mission statement includes enabling students to “earn competency-based degrees and other credentials that are credible to both academic institutions and employers.”
Absent is anything resembling the promotion of John Henry Newman’s “philosophic habit of mind” and there is not a word about lighting any sort of life-long educational “fire,” but, again, that’s not why WGU students sign up.
They sign up for an education that will impress employers, and employers seem to be duly impressed. A survey conducted by Western Governors in 2010 found that 97 percent of employers rated WGU graduates as equal to or better than graduates of other universities. Ninety-four percent were willing to hire another WGU graduate, and fifty percent said they were extremely willing to do so.
Western Governors is, by all appearances, a step forward in the field of higher education. “I think it’s going to catch on,” said Ray McKinnon.
If WGU wants to head east and set up a presence in North Carolina, our own governor should follow Rick Perry’s lead and give this innovative school a warm welcome.