Posts published in September, 2011
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.
Access and Funding in Public Higher Education—the 2011 National Survey
By Stephen G. Katsinas, The University of Alabama, Mark M. D’Amico, University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Janice N. Friedel, Iowa State University
With Pell Grants cut, tuition rising at more the double the rate of inflation, and with state funding for both college budgets and student aid cut or stagnating, students and their families are being squeezed. Also squeezed in the protracted recession are funds for workforce development and lifelong learning that build economic competitiveness. These trends likely mean first, that college access is shrinking overall, and second, postsecondary education is able to meet less and less of marketable skills workers and the economy demands. Thus, our nation’s economic competitiveness is imperiled.
For the past six months, Complete College America has been compiling data from 33 states to produce a report that paints – for the first time ever – a comprehensive picture of today’s college student, the challenges students face and the reasons why they are not completing their degrees and certificates.
You won’t want to miss the story in this morning’s New York Times about the report and what it means.
How to Break the Cycle of Remedial College Classes
By Brad Phillips, GOOD Education
This month, more than half of community college freshmen and at least a third of university students started college already behind. They’re in at least one remedial course that does not count toward a degree, thus beginning at least four months—and sometimes years—delayed in getting the degree they enrolled to earn. This colossal disappointment is largely avoidable. Students need not toil in remedial courses that cost precious time and money
The Institute for Higher Education Policy held a meeting focused on how “near-completers” – people who have earned most but not all of the credits they need for a college degree. The organization also discussed their Project Win-Win, which has helped nine institutions award nearly 600 associate degrees and identify almost 1,600 students who are candidates for earning degrees
Paul R. Wrubel, College Advisor, San Mateo, Ca. www.paulwrubel.com
Again this year, millions of hopeful Americans will complete the FAFSA and CSS Profile forms in order to qualify for need-based financial aid. They will pay attention to deadlines and try to follow the rules out of an innate sense of honesty and a desire to play it straight. They will do their job.
For their troubles, the promised outcomes will rarely if ever occur. Financial aid awards across the nation will reflect a different reality with elusive, shifting rules and an opaque strategy of determining who gets what. Families at any income and a few dollars left in the bank will be routinely “short-sheeted” by college-produced aid awards. If a family reporting an income of $65,000 were judged by their financial aid award, you might guess that the family had an income of $90,000 or even more. For millions of American families the college financial aid system will be a cruel and costly hoax.
For years, there has been a clamor to simplify the FAFSA so that families can more readily apply for need-based aid but with every passing year, it is clear that simplification would merely add to the growing chorus of disillusioned Americans. What real benefit is there to gain easy access to a theater if the play is bad? Simplification of the financial aid paperwork would merely add to the audience of disappointed and increasingly angry college-bound students and their families. But the illusion runs much deeper than mere paperwork.
An actual experience with financial aid looks like this. A family had submitted precisely the same financial and demographic information to three private colleges, two in Massachusetts and one in Oregon. Each college received exactly the same numbers. Two colleges responded with offers that suggested a family contribution of about $19,000 and $32,000 while a third proclaimed that the family did not qualify for one cent of aid making their family contribution a whopping $45,000+ or an assumption of an income of around $150-200,000. Same numbers, same formula, different outcomes. Why?
The mechanics of the system aside, the issue is money. Colleges can’t offer aid if they don’t have the money. The primary reason for this fiscal deficit is that the federal government and in some cases the state governments, agencies who may have had a hand in creating the system, have failed to contribute sufficient funds to ensure its ongoing viability. Federal and state contributions in support of need-based financial aid haven’t begun to keep pace with the realities of inflation or any accepted measure of cost-of-living adjustment. While college costs for families have gone up by more than 100% over the last couple of decades, during that same period the per-pupil influx of public aid has increased only about 20-30%. Family incomes may have grown by an even smaller increment in that time frame. The outcome of this scenario leaves the colleges holding the financial aid bag and they simply don’t have the resources to deal with it. So families try their best to fill in the gap and they usually do so by cashing in their retirement funds or pulling equity out of their homes or taking on more work if they can get it.
College Presidents Are Bullish on Online Education but Face a Skeptical Public
Delivering courses in cyber classrooms has gained broad acceptance among college presidents, but the general public is far less convinced of online education’s quality, according to new survey data released by the Pew Research Center, in association with The Chronicle. (Chronicle of Higher Education,
This morning, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on The Spellings Commission of five years ago, noting, in former North Carolina Governor James Hunt’s words: “One of the most important reports in the educational and economic history of our country-if we act on it.”
Five years later, little has been done to acted on the Commission’s recommendations, mostly because the suggestions from the Commission generally cost money and Congress and states have been too busy cutting, rather than adding, money from budgets. That makes it pretty hard to act on a Commission Report with two counter-active realities.
The second reason the recommendations have not been acted upon is that there is zero political will to do so. Higher education is simply not that important an issue in the face of the global economic collapse. Education is seen as one of the most important issues of society-until something else is. During election campaigns, education is always floated about as an important issue. However, “it’s the economy, stupid” reigns supreme in the electorate. Voters think of their pocketbooks first, their health and welfare second, and then comes the other things, like education, wars, and so on.
Professional certificates more valued than associates’ degrees
According to a national longitudinal study of U.S. workers who are now in their mid 30s, approximately “40 percent of those with certificates or licenses were earning more money than their peers with just an associate’s degree; more than a quarter of those with certificates or licenses were making more than those with bachelor’s degrees.”
ONE YEAR OUT
One year after graduating from high school, most members of the Class of 2010 believe that earning a college degree is “definitely” worth it, according to a survey released by the College Board. The comprehensive survey on college readiness and affordability, One Year Out, explores how young Americans assess their high school experience and its role in preparing them for life after graduation — be it work or postsecondary education. This survey was done with 1,500 students, one year after they graduated from high school in the class of 2010. Four in 10 of those students had gone on to a four-year college; one-quarter had enrolled in a two-year college; 6 percent were in trade school or a job-training program, and one-quarter weren’t in school at all. It delivers a variety of messages. Forty-four percent of students, for instance, said they wish they had taken different courses. The biggest regret is not taking more math, science, and writing-intensive coursework in high school. But only about half the respondents wished they’d worked harder in high school, and only one-third said they think high school graduation requirements should be tougher. (The ones who say they wish they’d worked harder, by the way, are not just those who struggled. They include large proportions of kids who got good grades and went on to college.) Source Gay Clyburn, Carnegie Foundation