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.
If there is one statistic that should give anyone pause about Western Governors, it is the school’s six-year graduation rate as calculated by the federal government: 22 percent. That happens to be the same as the average rate among for-profit colleges, and it is far from heartening. But the statistic comes with a number of caveats. As a matter of policy, the government determines graduation rates by looking only at students who are attending college for the first time and on a full-time basis—in short, the most conventional undergraduates. Like most schools that serve the “nontraditional” demographic, WGU points out that this set of criteria leaves out the vast bulk of its own student body. (The standard retort is that, even if such conventional students make up a tiny proportion of a school’s enrollment, they are the ones most likely to graduate in most circumstances.)
In WGU’s case, there are more caveats. The school’s most recent six-year graduation rate was published in 2010, which means it tracks students who began their studies back in 2004. At the time, most of WGU’s current programs didn’t exist yet, its enrollment stood at around 3,000, and it was in the process of decommissioning its less-than-successful complement of associate’s degrees. In short, Western Governors may simply be too young for this to be a great measure of its success. (Like most schools, Western Governors calculates its six-year graduation rate to include part-time students and those returning to college; that number is 40 percent. But that measure looks back to 2004 as well.)
Another statistic that college watchdogs prize is a school’s retention rate, which gauges whether students persist beyond the first year of study. And here Western Governors fares significantly better. This year, 77 percent of its first-year students hung on for a second year, higher than the national average at both for-profits and traditional schools. (According to the Online Education Database, Western Governors ranks fourth among online schools on this measure.)
Moreover, some data suggests that Western Governors does rather well at seeing older students—its target demographic—through to graduation. A 2010 study funded by the Gates Foundation and carried out by McKinsey and Company compared WGU’s graduation rate, broken down by different age brackets, to that of an anonymous but typical state higher education system. For students beginning a bachelor’s degree in their late twenties, WGU’s completion rate was 18 percentage points higher than the control. For students in their forties, it was 28 percentage points higher. Perhaps not surprisingly, only students who entered college in their late teens fared better in the conventional state system.
Those who do graduate from Western Governors credit their mentors with being the single biggest factor in their success. Playing a role with no real analog in the wider world of higher education, WGU’s mentors operate from home offices and kitchen tables scattered across the country. (But unlike the armies of adjuncts and graduate students who do most of the teaching at both for-profit and traditional schools, mentors work full-time with benefits.) They might advise a student on time management one day and on finding an attorney the next. McKinnon, the ex-pastor studying for his MBA, was working sixty hours a week at the Nissan dealership earlier this year, and his studies were beginning to crumple under the workload. His mentor, Melissa Prentice, gently raised the issue with him during their regular conversations, and McKinnon started discussing his sense of diminishing returns with his wife. Eventually the three of them—as if in a kind of family meeting—jointly decided that it would be best if he quit the dealership to focus on finishing his degree. Remarkably, given the scope of her role in his life, McKinnon has never actually met Melissa—nor is he exactly sure where she lives. “Melissa, I think, is in Seattle,” McKinnon said recently, “or Colorado. She’s incredible.”
The school’s mentors are also in a unique position to survey just how arduous it can be for a grown man or woman in America to finish college and make a fresh start. A few months after John Robinson enrolled at Western Governors in 2009, he lost his job with the ambulance company. His wife had lost her job the year before. In the grim Rhode Island economy, Robinson tried his hand at running a small business, renting a storefront in Woonsocket and opening a martial arts studio. He managed to cultivate enough paying students to cover his overhead, and he started coaching a couple of mixed martial arts cage fighters on the side. But he never cleared much of a profit.
And so, earlier this year, Robinson shuttered his business and moved away from Rhode Island, where he had lived most of his life. He took a job in an auto parts factory in Richmond, Kentucky, where his brother works. These days, Robinson’s schedule is more grueling than ever. He works overnight shifts that can last up to twelve hours, painting shock absorbers on an assembly line—then commutes home at five a.m. through a strange landscape of Baptist churches and fields full of cows.
Robinson’s load has lightened in at least one respect, however. Soon after the family’s move, his son tried going to school for the last part of the year. The experiment went well enough, and David was anxious to play drums in the school band and join the wresting team. So this fall he is entering junior high, and Robinson is putting his homeschooling days behind him. “It had its season,” he says.
While Robinson was in the midst of uprooting his life and replanting it in the Bluegrass State, he had to take a few weeks off from Western Governors; he was simply too exhausted to log on. At another school, the semester might have swept past him. But Robinson’s mentor told him, “You just do what you need to do.” When things had settled back down, he was able to pick up where he had left off. Today he is a little more than halfway through his degree in special education.
Though WGU’s brand of competency-based education may sound high concept, Robinson has found it perfectly intuitive in practice. “To me it made more sense than being in a classroom,” he says. “As soon as you’re done with the work, you get to move on. That just makes more sense.” Now, when he looks back at his prior experiences in college, it is with exasperation. “No offense to the younger kids, but you know, I’m in my thirties. You go in there with eighteen- and nineteen-year- olds, and it’s more of a social thing for them,” he says. “You go sit in a classroom and listen to people ask stupid questions, and the teacher has to go over things, over and over. I was like, oh my gosh, this is just breaking me.”
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