Western Governors University's education revolution

Western Governors University, with its competency approach to higher education, is attracting state students by the droves

Staff writerDecember 22, 2013 

Faster than in any other state, students in Washington are gravitating to a new kind of college education.

As a result, a Utah-based nonprofit school is booming and starting to turn out Washington graduates such as Jennifer Amato.

Like a quarter of Washington’s working-age population, Amato, 35, had some college credits but no degree. To advance beyond secretarial work, bartending and the like, she needed more school — not an easy prospect while commuting to work and raising three kids on her own.

Even night classes and most online schools seemed to require devoting a bloc of weekday time to studies, Amato said. But with Western Governors University, the Puyallup mom found a way to learn on her own schedule and at her own pace — which turned out to be fast.

Really fast.

Along the way to earning a bachelor’s degree in marketing this year after just 17 months, Amato spent her final six-month term juggling a whopping 83 credits. (A typical University of Washington student takes about 15 credits per quarter.)

“I got home from work on Friday and loaded up on Red Bull,” she said of her routine. “My mom took my kids for three-day weekends and I knocked it out.”

Western Governors University now has about 5,300 students from Washington state, a more-than-fivefold increase since the all-online school received official recognition from the Legislature in mid-2011.

WGU was one of the most popular places for Washington community-college students to transfer in the 2012-2013 school year. In the two-year college system’s survey of transfer schools, which is not comprehensive, transfers to WGU exceeded those to all other private schools surveyed – including the for-profit online University of Phoenix – as well as some of the state’s public four-year universities.

This year, lawmakers ensured state financial aid could be used for WGU, just as it is for private schools such as Pacific Lutheran University and Saint Martin’s University.

The school’s nonprofit status sets it apart from the many online schools run by for-profit companies.

Another distinction between WGU and most universities — whether virtual or brick-and-mortar — is the way it awards credit without regard to time spent taking a class. Students pay by the six-month term, not by the credit hour, and can pack as many credits as they are able into a term.

WGU offers bachelor’s or master’s degrees in four areas: business, information technology, health care and teaching – some of the state’s most in-demand fields.

“We’ve got to, in the next five years or so, increase total degree production by maybe 50 percent” to meet the demands of Washington employers, said House Higher Education Committee Chairman Larry Seaquist, who advocated for the state changes. The Gig Harbor Democrat says the state has to offer a wide menu of college programs to attract many kinds of students.

WGU is not receiving, or asking for, a state subsidy. But lawmakers’ endorsement was key to the nonprofit’s surge in Washington enrollment. By partnering with WGU to create WGU Washington, the Legislature ensured the university would be treated essentially as a Washington-based college, despite its headquarters in Salt Lake City.

“It does allow them to kind of position themselves as a Washington institution rather than as some out-of-state institution. It does seem to have a little different kind of resonance,” said Randy Spaulding, director of academic affairs and policy for the Washington Student Achievement Council, the state higher-education coordinating board.

The stamp of approval allows WGU to target advertising to Washington television stations, billboards and local websites. The ads can play up the school’s local connections, touting WGU Washington as a state-endorsed school.

The exposure has sent enrollment soaring.

Washington now has the most WGU students of any state, more than bigger states such as California and Texas.

“Obviously as the Legislature knew there was a big unmet demand in the state,” said Robert Mendenhall, WGU’s president. His school’s growth “hasn’t resulted in decreased enrollments in the four-year public universities. … I think we’re really serving students that previously weren’t served.”

Some teachers at the four-year public schools remain worried.

United Faculty of Washington State President Bill Lyne said that by advancing WGU, state lawmakers are creating the “illusion” the state is producing more degrees even though they have slashed public funding for higher education.

“They are presenting it as a legitimate alternative to real college, as a way I think to further privatize higher education,” Lyne said.

Lyne argues that directing students to WGU will only widen the gap between them and the students who can afford traditional college.

But Jean Floten, chancellor of WGU Washington, said the school breaks down barriers by giving a new opportunity to people who would never have attended college.

“I’ve devoted my life to egalitarian education,” Floten said, saying she started her 40-year career in higher education at community colleges as they absorbed veterans returning from Vietnam and newly empowered women entering the workforce. Now, she said, she’s part of helping people who can’t afford the skyrocketing tuition and time constraints of traditional college.

“To me it’s a logical progression intellectually, as far as being part of a revolution that is making higher education affordable, accessible, using the power of the Internet to reach traditionally underserved populations.”

The first to hold the position of chancellor, Floten jumped to the post after 22 years as president of Bellevue College, a community college that offers some bachelor’s degrees.

She’s one of five chancellors at virtual campuses created by governors or legislators in Indiana, Texas, Missouri, Tennessee and Washington who have agreed to treat WGU as an in-state school.

It’s part of a history of states’ involvement that dates back to the origins of WGU, founded by the association of 19 western state governors that at the time included Washington’s Mike Lowry. The governors, led by Utah’s Mike Leavitt, conceived the idea at a 1995 meeting. Enrollment grew slowly at first after the school started accepting students in 1999.

In more recent years the national student body has grown by leaps and bounds — to more than 43,000 — even as the overall college population of the United States is shrinking.

The growth is driven by the same group causing the decline in college enrollment nationally: older students. The average age of a WGU student is 37.

Students such as Sandy Main, an information-technology director in Olympia, and Cassi Fields, a child-care provider in Tacoma who also owns a jewelry business, say WGU has allowed them to fit classes into a busy work schedule.

Not that it was easy, said Main, who finished up her classes last June. “WGU really is a challenge, and if you’re making it through, then it says something,” she said.

HOW IT’S DIFFERENT

Another appeal, Amato said, is that students won’t waste their time and money on what they don’t need.

“With WGU it’s pretty much: Here’s what the end result is that we need from you,” Amato said.

The kind of intense courseload Amato took would be unmanageable at a traditional school where credits are awarded for spending a set time in a course.

WGU, though, mostly doesn’t care how much time you put in. Prove that you have learned the material — or that you already knew it — and you’re on to the next level.

The school calls it competency-based education. A student must achieve “competency” in a subject before earning credit. Tests can be retaken a second time, and more under certain restrictions.

But there are no grades. The school says employers, who might wonder how to judge what a B or C student from other schools actually knows, can be confident that WGU graduates have mastered the skills they need for their fields.

The school still requires the kind of hands-on training in teaching and nursing that brick-and-mortar schools do. But some school districts report that it’s not enough for their liking, and that WGU graduates have additional hurdles to becoming student teachers.

“We’ve found sometimes the people who come out of online don’t have as much hands-on experience,” said Krista Carlson, spokeswoman for the Bethel School District. “With those folks, usually it requires an additional recommendation from a principal.”

WGU’s go-at-your-own-pace system also works better for some than for others.

“I think it’s a really good program. It was hard for me personally,” said former master’s-in-business-administration student Athena Elrod, of Tacoma, “because you take three classes and you have six months to get them done. But there’s not a timeline for assignments and I think I had a tendency to put stuff off until the last minute.”

Elrod said she is about to try working toward a different degree at a different school offering online classes, Southern New Hampshire University, which she said is more structured. The school is also doing work with competency-based education.

Competency is one of two major innovations that set WGU apart from most brick-and-mortar colleges and, in fact, most online colleges as well.

The other is a division of labor.

Traditional college professors single-handedly — or more likely, with the help of assistants — develop lessons, present them to students and grade the work that comes back.

At WGU, each of those tasks is done by a different person.

“The idea of a faculty member who is the subject matter expert in the subject, and a great teacher, and an assessment expert, all rolled into one, is just not realistic,” Mendenhall said.

Much of the work of creating lessons and tests is outsourced. Councils of industry experts help WGU faculty decide the competencies, or standards, that show mastery of a subject.

The WGU faculty, rather than writing lessons to teach those standards, hunt down content from curriculum and textbook companies such as Pearson and McGraw Hill, or from other schools or instructional websites, adapting it to WGU’s needs.

A separate group of employees writes the tests that will prove students meet the standards, often with outside help from contractors or industry.

“For example, in IT,” Mendenhall said of the school’s information technology program, “Microsoft and Cisco and Oracle all have developed both the test to assess competency and the curriculum.”

A student’s main contact is with one of hundreds of “student mentors” with expertise and usually a master’s degree in the subject area the student is studying. This mentor is a student’s guide over the months or years at WGU, checking in by phone weekly or more often, advising them on whether to slow down or speed up.

An expert “course mentor,” usually with the highest degree in any given field, is assigned to a particular class. It’s the closest thing WGU has to a professor. Students can ask course mentors questions by email or phone. Some might only do that once or twice while others might talk to course mentors consistently for weeks or months, the school says.

The school offers webinars and workshops for those who need them, said Sheila Clark, a student mentor in Olympia who works with bachelor’s-degree students in business.

“I get to know what that student’s strengths and challenges are,” Clark said. “I can help tailor our resources to their needs and really just kind of be there every step of the way until we get them to graduation. We’re there for the ups and the downs. If they get to a stage where they want to give up, I try to keep them hanging on.”

The faculty, together with employees dealing with enrollment, financial aid, technology and the like, make up a staff of roughly 2,400 employees, Mendenhall said. Four-fifths of them work from home. Just a handful populate WGU’s outpost at Fourth Avenue and Madison Street in Seattle.

SCHOOL’S QUALITY

Just how good is WGU?

Its biggest claim to quality is accreditation by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, which accredits other state public and private colleges, from the University of Puget Sound to the University of Washington to Pierce College.

The university reports 45 percent of Washington students graduate within six years, or three years for graduate students.

The school’s reported graduation rate is on the rise, according to the achievement council, but it’s difficult to compare with other colleges. The federal government reports students at public four-year colleges in Washington graduate within six years at rates ranging from 43 percent to 81 percent. But that considers only first-time students. At WGU, those first-timers are in short supply and graduate nationally at a rate of 27 percent.

The school’s rate of job placement for graduates, listed as 87 percent, is also hard to compare because it counts so many students who stay in their jobs while attending the school.

Critiques from academia tend to focus on the teaching model.

Johann Neem, a history professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, said a well-rounded education requires scholars who are engrossed in their subjects.

In his classes — one is about the history of college in America — Neem says the syllabus is just the jumping-off point. Students’ questions spur conversations and he pushes them to think deeply about the subject. That’s good not only for the young, he said.

“I think it’s insulting to say that someone in their thirties would not benefit from the opportunities to reflect thoughtfully about the experiences they’ve had, through the liberal arts and sciences,” he said.

WGU offers not scholars, he argues, but coaches who can help them through the curriculum and tests, testing experts who are bound to evaluate the technical aspects of a paper more than its substance, and “profit-minded vendors” whose standardized products threaten academic freedom.

Lyne, the union leader, called WGU’s model a scam that pushes educators to the side to replace them with materials that students could find for free if they knew where to look.

“They’re teaching teachers without teachers. They’re teaching nurses without teachers,” said Lyne, whose group represents faculty at The Evergreen State College, Western, Eastern and Central Washington universities. (WGU is not unionized.)

Mendenhall said with more than 1,000 faculty, it’s not as though his school has done away with teaching. Freed up from lecturing, he contends, those educators actually have more time to encourage critical thinking.

“We probably provide more one-on-one support than most students ever see,” Floten said.

Students must prove they know the material in tests designed by experts instead of simply restating what the professor said in lectures, Mendenhall said.

“We can actually develop well-rounded liberal thinkers in the model that we’re using,” he said.

He said test scores back that up. WGU says its seniors perform better on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which is supposed to test critical thinking and other general skills, than their peers at 80 percent of the more than 150 schools where they took the test.

There are legitimate questions to be asked about who employs the people creating curriculum and what their credentials are, said Kevin Kinser, chairman of the University at Albany department of educational administration and policy studies.

But Kinser argues it makes sense to bring together the best possible people to create a course rather than rely on a single faculty member.

“I think a lot of the criticisms of it,” he said, “are based on some assumptions about what education ought to be because of the way education has traditionally been.”

COST

WGU touts its low cost, at $5,780 a year for a typical program.

Students at the University of Washington pay $12,397. Those at The Evergreen State College pay $8,415. Private schools generally charge far more.

Tuition hasn’t increased at WGU since 2008, even as it has skyrocketed at public universities as the state has cut college funding to balance its budget. Washington residents’ undergraduate tuition and fees rose 78 percent over the same period at UW and 70 percent at Washington State University.

Neem argues that tuition is bound to stay low for a school that has no campus full of buildings, no science laboratories and has outsourced many faculty duties. The professor questions why the price tag isn’t even smaller. He points to the president’s salary as a sign of administrative bloat.

Mendenhall made $853,000 in total compensation in the year ending in mid-2012, according to tax filings. Some college presidents make more, to be sure. But his pay is relatively large, especially when compared with Washington presidents.

The president of the University of Puget Sound was at or near the head of the class for Washington private schools in 2012 with $623,000. Among public schools, University of Washington President Michael Young reportedly was near the top of the list nationally in 2012 with a full compensation package of $802,000, before a raise this year.

“I would just say that our total administrative costs are 5.5 percent of revenue,” Mendenhall said, “and I don’t know of another university that’s at 5.5 percent or less.”

STATE AID

Federal financial aid helps tamp down the cost of attending WGU.

Last spring, a bipartisan measure in the Legislature paved the way for students at the school to receive state financial aid as well.

The change puts them in line with students at brick-and-mortar Washington schools, public and private. For months, staff members at the achievement council have been examining the college’s finances and expect it to meet all of the requirements necessary to clinch financial aid.

Among those eager to apply for the State Need Grant is Fields, who was shocked by her low award amount when she first filled out her financial aid forms. She has been taking out loans to make up the difference, adding to the student loans she accumulated while earning an associate’s degree at Tacoma Community College. Fields owes close to $35,000 between the two schools, mostly from her time at TCC.

Lawmakers, however, didn’t add any money to the State Need Grant program in the spring to account for the new students who will be eligible for the grant. The leaders of both private and public college associations, the Independent Colleges of Washington and the Council of Presidents, said that was a mistake.

The pool of money is too small to fund everyone who’s eligible. Some 32,000 eligible college students are missing out on the grant. The achievement council has requested money next year to provide aid for 3,800 of them.

“If they expanded the pool of State Need Grant eligibility without paying additional dollars, they’ve made it harder for every student to get a State Need Grant,” said Paul Francis, executive director of the Council of Presidents.

The achievement council, which administers the need grants, said it plans to provide a small sum of start-up funding this school year to WGU, less than $100,000 in a more than $300-million-a-year program.

What students there get in the future will depend on eligibility. WGU told the council 1,700 students might be eligible based on a preliminary review, which could mean up to several million dollars would be needed.

SPREADING

The idea of measuring competency is starting to spread to other colleges in Washington.

Edmonds Community College this fall started a program that issues certificates to information-technology students who go through a competency-based program online. WGU helped the school establish the model, using a grant from the Gates Foundation.

The $1.7 million grant is also being used to create competency programs at three other Washington community colleges, Bellevue, Spokane Falls and Columbia Basin, and at five colleges in three other states.

The Washington community college system is also using competency to award high school diplomas to adults 21 and older.

Students are still a long way from being able to win full college degrees by showing competency, but that idea is on the table.

Community-college system officials have been meeting to talk about what would be involved. Their draft recommendations issued in May call for a competency-based associate’s degree in business, which would let students learn at their own pace and separate teaching duties among three groups of faculty.

Some other schools have started to adopt a competency model, but Mendenhall said it’s tough to implement because it requires allowing each student to proceed on an individualized track.

“I think it will take a long time,” he said, “for competency-based education to gain wide acceptance.”

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 blog.thenewstribune.com/politics

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