By offering adults an education that is faster, cheaper, and better than the likes of Kaplan, Phoenix, or Capella, the nonprofit Western Governors University just might eat their lunch.
Photo: David Stephenson
John Robinson was working nights as an emergency medical technician in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, when he decided to pull his son out of school. David was a second grader with a penchant for acting out, and Robinson, as the parent who stayed home—however groggily—during the day, bore the brunt of the phone calls from the boy’s addled teachers. One afternoon in 2008, during a season of endless parent-teacher conferences and emergency midday pickups, Robinson got a call saying that his son had wrecked a classroom in an uncontrollable fit. A short while later Robinson sat in the familiar grip of a meeting with school officials. “Do you have any suggestions?” they asked him. “Yeah,” he found himself saying. “How about I teach him?”
The teachers persuaded Robinson to send his son to a school for kids with behavioral disorders. But after David had been there for just a few weeks, Robinson found out that the boy was being physically restrained. So Robinson began homeschooling David, arriving home every morning at seven from his eight-hour shift on the ambulance, making breakfast for the two of them, and then teaching through lunch. After that he would steal a few hours of sleep before heading back to work and starting the cycle all over again. The grueling schedule only accelerated Robinson’s growing fatigue with life as a third-shift EMT. “I was starting to feel the burnout,” he recalls, citing what is widely held to be an inevitable fact of life for emergency medical workers. He was desperate to climb out of his job. The problem was that there was no clear next rung on the ladder for him to reach for.
Robinson’s career had been a series of false starts. After serving as a military policeman during the first Gulf War, he’d studied criminal justice at a local community college for a while, then decided it wasn’t for him. He earned his EMT certification—a relatively quick credential—a couple of years later. Fully aware that ambulance work wasn’t really “a lifelong career kind of thing,” Robinson set his sights on a nursing degree, going so far as to earn all the academic prerequisites. But then, just before he pulled David out of school, Robinson ran aground in the great sand trap of contemporary American public higher education: due to a shortage of instructors, there was a two-and-a-half-year waiting list for the nursing program at his local community college. Other state schools, he heard, had wait lists as well. The system was maxed out.
As Robinson’s name inched slowly up the rolls— and as he continued his routine of homeschooling by day and sirens by night—he and his wife started to discuss a new idea. For years, he had been working with kids in his spare time: at a Sunday school, in martial arts lessons, in an afterschool program for children in public housing projects. And now, with his son, Robinson seemed to be making real progress. It was a giant leap—but what if he became a teacher? Better yet, what if he specialized in teaching kids like David, kids who needed special ed? By all accounts, the country was in dire need of such teachers, and the job promised security and solid benefits, perks he had always lacked as an EMT.
With newfound resolve, Robinson began his search for a degree program in special education. And for the first time in his life, he didn’t look to a nearby state college. Given his daily commitments, trucking to campus for a normal class schedule was out of the question. His best, and perhaps only, option, it seemed, was to step out into the wilderness of online education.
Robinson had heard of the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, schools that cater to working adults via a mixture of online courses and classroom facilities in suburban office parks. But he also knew enough, vaguely, to feel he should steer clear of them. (“When you tell people, ‘I go to the University of Phoenix,’ it’s like, ‘Haha, that’s not a real degree’—you know?”)
Robinson doesn’t remember exactly how he discovered Western Governors University; he thinks he may have clicked on an advertisement generated by a Google search. He noticed that the school was accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, a professional oversight body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education; that seemed promising. (WGU happens to be the only all-online school that bears that distinction.) He also noticed that the university was founded by the governors of nineteen U.S. states, which seemed a legitimate, if unusual, provenance. A phone call with an admissions counselor sealed the deal. He enrolled in July 2009.
With that, Robinson stumbled into one of the most unassuming but revolutionary institutions in American higher education. Western Governors differs in several respects from the crush of online schools that have mushroomed in recent years to serve working adults like Robinson. For one thing, unlike the Phoenixes, Capellas, Ashfords, and Grand Canyons that plaster America’s billboards, Web sites, and subway cars with ads, Western Governors is a nonprofit institution. That means no $100 million marketing budget, and no 30 percent profit margin. For anyone actually enrolled at Western Governors, the biggest difference is simply its price. The average annual cost of tuition at for-profit universities is around $15,600. Tuition at Western Governors, meanwhile, costs a flat rate of just under $6,000 a year.
The reason Western Governors can offer this kind of tuition (which is often, in practice, even cheaper than it looks; more on this later) is because of its signature twist on the idea of a university—a feature that sets it apart not only from its for-profit competitors, but from virtually every other institution of higher education in the country. This innovation allows WGU to offer its students a college degree that is of greater demonstrable value than what its for-profit competitors offer—and do so for about a third the price, in half the time.
That value proposition is catching on with more and more Americans. With just over 25,000 students today, Western Governors is growing at a rate of about 30 percent a year, and has done so for much of the past decade. That kind of rapid expansion may not have been especially remarkable in the online education sector a few years ago, when the industry was booming, but today it renders WGU a stark outlier. After ten years of breakneck growth, for-profit colleges are in damage control mode, having found themselves the recent target of congressional hearings, scathing news investigations, and a tightening regulatory regime. New enrollments at the University of Phoenix dropped by just over 40 percent in the first part of 2011, while tuition has only increased. At Kaplan new enrollments fell by 48 percent in the same period. These collapsing numbers are not merely the short-term results of bad press. The for-profits are suffering because they have a business model that doesn’t quite work anymore; Western Governors is growing because it has one that does.
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