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.
The chief instigators of the idea were Michael Leavitt, then the Republican governor of Utah, and Roy Romer, the Democratic governor of Colorado at the time. Leavitt was a quintessential 1990s futurist, so steeped in ideas about technology’s transformative potential that a Utah student newspaper dubbed him “Governor Leavittate.” It was Leavitt who proposed the then-novel idea of launching the university online, thus allowing it to operate across state lines and reach students in the western hinterlands. Romer brought the idea of “competency- based” education to the table, partly as a means to hold institutions accountable—are students learning a commonly agreed-upon set of competencies, or aren’t they?—and partly to streamline the college experience. As the former head of a flight school, Romer saw the process of acquiring a pilot’s license as a sensible template: if you can demonstrate your abilities, however you came by them, you should receive the credential. (He also liked to evoke the image of Abraham Lincoln studying law out on his own, by candlelight, before being admitted to the Illinois bar.)
That December, the governors organized a conference of state officials, higher education advocates, and technology entrepreneurs at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The event was half symposium, half ambush. The organizers asked the hotel to set up its main ballroom as if for a prizefight. Their aim: to stage a showdown between the higher education establishment and the idea that eighteen governors had cooked up excitedly in a hotel conference room a few months before. They called it the “Next Generation Virtual University.”
The proposed institution was scarcely more than a vision statement, but it was enough to set off three years of hype surrounding what came to be known as Western Governors University. A series of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education followed, along with a slew of heady pronouncements about WGU and the future of higher education. For traditional colleges and universities, wrote one prominent commentator at the time, “the scare words of choice are ‘Western Governors University.’ ”
In 1999, Kevin Kinser, then a young doctoral student at Columbia, wrote his dissertation about Western Governors. “There are some institutions which have had an enormous impact on American higher education. Harvard stands out as the first college. Cornell is the crown of the land grant movement. Johns Hopkins is America’s first research university,” he wrote. “Today, like them, the WGU has the potential to set the future direction for higher education.”
Not long thereafter, Kinser’s dissertation adviser actually apologized for suggesting WGU as a subject for his research. By the start of the new millennium, the project looked like a total flop. When Western Governors began accepting applications in 1998, it received only seventy-five in the first two weeks. The next year, the headline “Virtual U Struggles to Get Real” appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune. By the end of 2000, the school had all of 200 students, and a Utah auditor general was officially lambasting it for low enrollments and a failure to compete with other distance education programs. In a year that saw the ignominious collapse of Pets.com, Western Governors was hard to distinguish from all the flotsam sloshing around in the wake of the dot-com bust.
But the school’s slow start was no accident. At the Las Vegas meeting, the founders of Western Governors had picked perhaps their biggest fight with the accreditation establishment, the set of powerful nonprofit industry associations that function as the gatekeepers of academic legitimacy, determining which schools are eligible to take part in federal student financial aid programs. Leavitt, who saw the accreditors as a chief barrier to new ideas in higher education, was determined to make Western Governors a kind of test case for the accreditation of geographically dispersed, online, competency- based programs—and was willing to stake his political capital on making it happen. The process took years, and in the interim, students were naturally reluctant to enroll in an unknown, unaccredited school. (As WGU was slogging through its earnest precedent-setting exercise, meanwhile, for-profit schools with online programs discovered a more expedient workaround: they figured out they could gain accreditation simply by acquiring existing but dying traditional institutions— body-snatcher style—and inheriting theirs.)
By the time Western Governors finally secured its accreditation in 2003—from not just one, but four of the major regional accreditors—times had changed. The online education marketplace was an increasingly crowded bazaar. For-profit schools, fortified by infusions of capital from Wall Street and multimillion-dollar marketing budgets, had begun their decade-long boom. No longer a pure symbol of online education’s upstart potential, Western Governors was just another player looking for an edge in a competitive field.
Trial and error led the university to a tightly focused approach. Initially, the bulk of the school’s offerings had been associate’s degree programs aimed at students attending college for the first time. But those students, who were relatively close in age and experience to the traditional college norm, floundered in WGU’s online, competency- based program. By contrast, adult students with some college and workplace experience thrived. Ironically, that placed Western Governors squarely in contention not with the entrenched traditional institutions that had so frustrated the school’s founders, but with the burgeoning for-profit sector. At Western Governors the average age settled at thirty-six—exactly the same as in University of Phoenix’s online programs. Western Governors was not competing with the sun-dappled quad. It was competing with the billboards on Interstate 10.
The school decided on a curriculum offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees in four “high-demand” areas: education, business, information technology, and health professions, mainly nursing. (Though there are liberal arts components to the school’s bachelor’s programs, Western Governors professes no interest in churning out philosophy, English, or music history grads.) Those areas of curricular focus, too, put Western Governors on much the same playing field as many of the for-profits. But here again the school could offer something distinct. For-profit universities have often built their businesses around supplying the sort of career training that requires no external validation from a professional body. “They target fields where the credential from the university is sufficient,” says Kinser. “So you don’t have a lot of nursing programs in the for-profit sector, because there’s an external nursing exam. You don’t have a lot of law schools, because there’s a bar exam. You have legal assistants or medical assistants”—professions defined only by the piece of paper a university hands you. That, of course, frees the for-profits from an element of external accountability—but at a cost to their credibility.
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