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.
This time, however, he is determined to finish his degree. “I just don’t have an option anymore. I’m gonna turn forty next year, and now what? I’m not gonna work a dead-end job,” he says. “I’m not a twenty-one-year-old college kid anymore.”
No matter how much market share it seizes from the for-profits, Western Governors is unlikely to fire the imaginations of those who like to think of college as a crucible of open-ended inquiry, critical citizenship, and humanistic contemplation. But it’s worth remembering that not all crucibles look alike. Before he enrolled at Western Governors, John Robinson says, he had never written a paper in his life. Now he has written more than a score of them, and the experience has given him newfound confidence in his own thinking. “Ideas are flowing, I’m making notes of things,” he says. “When I get an idea, I write it down.” The other day, he sat down at his computer with his morning cup of coffee after sleeping off a shift at the factory and discovered, via Facebook alert, that an essay he had submitted to a Christian online magazine had been published.
The education of “nontraditional” students has been a subject fraught with cognitive dissonance in America, where much of the discussion surrounding higher education is unduly preoccupied with matters of prestige and exclusivity. In this context, leaders of for-profit colleges have held up their neglected, underserved student populations as a badge of moral seriousness. “What we do is educate people who would never have a shot, thank you very much,” a former Kaplan executive said in a recent Washington Post article. In effect, the for-profit schools have accused their prestigious critics of looking at the world of working-class, adult students and saying, for all intents and purposes, “Let them eat cake.” And despite their many flaws, the for-profits have a point here. That’s why the country needs more institutions like Western Governors— innovative, low-cost schools offering degrees of demonstrable value—that put both the snobs and the profiteers to shame.
Looking forward, all signs point to WGU’s continued growth. In a recent interview with the online magazine Inside Higher Ed, Mendenhall was bullish about the template set by the school’s deal with Indiana. “Over the next five years we’ll aim to do 10, 12 states and then see where that takes us,” he said. In early August, Governor Rick Perry announced the creation of WGU Texas, and California’s legislature is exploring the feasibility of its own Western Governors subsidiary. Other rumored possible partners include Arizona and Louisiana. Entering into similar agreements with states “would be a rather difficult model for the for-profit sector to duplicate,” says Kevin Kinser. Last summer, California’s community college system tried to arrive at a similar partnership with Kaplan, but the school’s for-profit status made the deal unworkable. (Its increasingly horrible press did not help either.)
In June, the Department of Education handed down the final version of its gainful employment rule. Though more watered down than some reformers had hoped, the new regulation is predicted to render about 5 percent of for-profit programs ineligible for federal aid— effectively shutting them down—starting in 2015. But just as dramatic are the effects the rule is already having on the industry, as schools clamber to reengineer their business models so as not to run afoul of Washington. Last year, 25 percent of students who attended for-profit colleges defaulted on their student loans within three years. In order to survive, schools will have to find some way to bring those numbers down. Phoenix, which not long ago compensated recruiters according to the number of students they enrolled (homeless, addicted, brain injured, or no), has instituted a mandatory three-week student orientation period. The entire sector is grappling with the shock of suddenly having a stake in its students’ success.
WGU, whose model needs no overhauling—and whose student loan default rate is about 5 percent—will only benefit from its competitors’ time in the wilderness. The demand for higher education, after all, is as stronger than ever.
What’s more, it may only be a matter of time before the Western Governors model begins to pose its founders’ challenge to traditional higher education as well. Consider WGU’s college of business, the school’s second largest academic program. Business is the most popular undergraduate major in America. But recently, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that undergraduate students of business learn measurably less than students in other fields. The scholars examined the results of a national essay-based exam called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, and measured how much students’ scores improved over the course of four years in college. Business students’ scores improved scarcely at all.
Colleges across the country regularly administer the Collegiate Learning Assessment. But schools closely guard the results—so loath are they to reveal what their students are, or aren’t, getting out of their studies. By contrast, a Western Governors degree is a fairly straightforward testament to what a graduate knows. It doesn’t seem much of a stretch to imagine that, given the choice, employers might come to prefer the latter.
Earlier this year, the Center for American Progress published a report called “Disrupting College,” by the Harvard business school professor Clayton Christensen and three coauthors. Research universities, Christensen argues, simply weren’t designed to do what we are increasingly asking higher education to do: educate students from wildly different backgrounds for jobs outside the academy in ways that can be measured and assessed. Christensen and his coauthors describe the for-profit and online schools that have cropped up over the past twenty years as a “first wave of educational disruptive innovation.” But that wave arose under a system of regulatory incentives that didn’t either reward student success or punish failure, and so it could break up against reforms like the gainful employment rule. Some schools in that first wave will survive, and others won’t. Phoenix, with its astonishing enrollment of 438,000 students, is fiercely trying to adapt—and, with its multibillion-dollar revenues, it probably will succeed. Corinthian Colleges, a large chain of schools with an average 40 percent default rate—15 percentage points higher than the average in the sector—might not.
At just over 25,000 students, WGU’s enrollment is still a rounding error in the grand scheme of American higher education. The school’s curriculum is relatively narrow, and its model may require a degree of discipline and self-motivation that many students don’t possess. But perhaps more than any other institution out there, Western Governors is aligned with the new pressures shaping the higher education market. The only question is how big it can get.
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