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.
To understand WGU’s big innovation, it helps to think first about the system we have now. In the United States today, a college degree can signal a variety of things. A diploma from an elite school, for instance, broadcasts the culture, prestige, and exclusivity of the institution that stamped it. But as you move down-market into the vast middle range of American schools, those institution-specific signals either become very weak—verging on inaudible—or very geographically specific. (A diploma from Louisiana State University will get you a lot farther in bayou country than in San Francisco.) And yet colleges all across this spectrum produce the same four-year credential: a bachelor’s degree. So what is the common denominator between a diploma from, say, Cornell and one from Texas Southern University? Simply put: time. At bottom, every college degree is a blunt, dumb testament to its recipient’s persistence. As a recent report from the Center for American Progress put it, a degree means you sat through 120 credit hours of coursework and didn’t fail—whatever “fail” may have meant to your given crop of professors.
This way of doing things has two main drawbacks. The first is that for employers a diploma doesn’t impart all that much useful information. (What does a C student know? Half the material well? All the material by half?) The second major drawback is that for students without a lot of time on their hands—students like John Robinson—it entails a lot of sitting around.
WGU’s answer to the status quo is to offer a degree that is based on competency rather than time. By gathering information from employers, industry experts, and academics, Western Governors formulates a detailed, institution- wide sense of what every graduate of a given degree program needs to know. Then they work backward from there, defining what every student who has taken a given course needs to know. As they go, they design assessments—tests—of all those competencies. “Essentially,” says Kevin Kinser, a professor of education at the State University of New York at Albany, “they’re creating a bar exam for each point along the way that leads to a degree.”
Those fixed standards enable a world of variation. At Western Governors, students aren’t asked to sit in a class any longer than it takes for them to demonstrate that they have mastered the material. In fact, they aren’t asked to sit in a “class” at all. At the beginning of a course, students are given a test called a “pre-assessment.” Then they have a conversation with their mentor—a kind of personal coach assigned to each student for the duration of their degree program—to discuss which concepts in the course they already grasp, which they still need to master, and how to go about closing the gap. The students are then offered a broad set of “learning resources”—a drab phrase, sure, but no more so than “crowded lecture hall”—that may include videos, textbooks, online simulations, conversations with a WGU course mentor (an expert in the subject matter who is on call to answer questions), or even tutors in the student’s hometown.
If the course material is entirely new to a student, she might make her way through it in eight weeks, or eighteen—or eighty, for that matter. Then again, maybe the student is, say, an ex-pastor who’s been selling Nissans in western North Carolina to make ends meet while he earns an MBA in human resources management—and maybe the course is Business Ethics. Ray Shawn McKinnon, the former pastor in question, studied ethics in his early twenties for his bachelor’s in ministry and theology, so he nailed the pre-assessment. Given that success, his mentor allowed him to immediately take the final, which he passed. With that, Business Ethics went down on his transcript—and McKinnon moved on to subjects that genuinely terrified him, like math. “If you can prove your competence,” McKinnon said, “why pay all of that money to sit through something you already know?”
This is where the real power of the Western Governors economic model comes in. Tuition at the school works according to the “all-you-can-eat buffet” principle: $6,000 covers as many courses as you can finish in two semesters. Given the freedom to move at their own pace, many students can finish more than a standard academic load each term. In fact, according to Western Governors, the average time to degree for people who complete their bachelor’s at the school is around thirty months. That’s a college degree in two and a half years—for a total of around fifteen thousand bucks.
By comparison, most for-profit institutions—where the average time to degree is fifty-seven months—have simply found ways to shave down the overhead costs of delivering an otherwise utterly conventional college degree. “Ninety-five percent of online education in the country is really classroom education delivered over a wire,” Robert Mendenhall, the president of WGU, likes to say. “It’s still a professor with fifteen or twenty or thirty students on the other end, and they have a syllabus and assignments.” Given the academic industry standard—a hulking research university— it’s not particularly hard to find marginal efficiencies in the way higher education is delivered. These institutions are just farmers of low-hanging fruit.
Moreover, while they’ve lowered the cost of producing an education, they have seldom lowered the price of acquiring one. Many for-profits have simply pegged their tuition at or near the maximum federal loan allowance, which is itself tied to the soaring tuition rates of traditional brick-and-mortar schools. This is a formula that has produced reliably fat profit margins and rising stock prices, if not necessarily high-quality educations. And it has been ripe for a takedown.
Western Governors was always meant to be a revolutionary institution. Its founders simply had the wrong revolution in mind. On a balmy Sunday evening in June 1995, eighteen governors sat down around a conference table in the mountain resort town of Park City, Utah, and began trading war stories about their states’ higher education systems. It was a special closed-door session of the annual Western Governors Association meeting, and in the absence of reporters, the state executives vented. They all faced the same awful statistics: growing populations, state budgets failing to keep pace. It was painfully clear that public institutions would need to find a way to scale up drastically, and cheaply, if they were to keep up with demand. But universities were fiercely protective of their inefficiencies— and their worst-performing programs. One governor described catching hell for trying to close a barely functional veterinary school. Others had similar tales. Whenever they tried to intervene in their public higher education systems, the governors agreed, they found themselves rebuffed and ridiculed. So, right then and there, they hit on the notion of starting a new university from scratch.
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