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Original Article:
Remote Access (spring 2006)


Western Governors University
July 2008

IN JANUARY 1998, Western Governors University was completing its initial planning phase, and was preparing to begin a “pilot” period, when National CrossTalk published the first of two articles about the fledgling university. The champions of WGU promised that “distance education” methods emphasizing computer and television instruction would provide a new and less expensive alternative to traditional campuses.

The big predictions that were offered risked making a more modest success look like a failure, and that is arguably what happened.

At the beginning, there were concerns that political realities were creating pressure for a “fast start.” Some planners feared that WGU was making a mistake by promising more than it could deliver, at least initially.

Distance education was a relatively new phenomenon, and WGU was acknowledged as a trailblazer. Still, the university’s pilot program in 1998 was very small. There were 200 students, only one faculty “mentor,” and a lot of questions. One of the doubters who was quoted in the 1998 article said, “The hype is out in front of the infrastructure. There is a substantial disconnect between the PR about WGU and what is actually there.”

By 2006, when National CrossTalk reported on WGU again, the university had grown to an enrollment of 5,200 students from all 50 states and ten foreign countries, and had gained accreditation. Its novel “competency-based” approach to awarding degrees, although one that did not spread to other institutions, continued to offer a challenging alternative to traditional credit-hour programs.

But at the same time, other online education programs became commonplace, surpassing WGU in their size and impact.

In a 2008 interview, WGU President Robert Mendenhall said the perception that the university has failed to meet expectations is based on a misunderstanding of how the institution developed. “When the governors started this, the view was that this could be the online university that all the states would utilize—that all the states would deliver their online courses though WGU,” he said. “If you count up all the students in the western states, that would be tens of thousands, but that never happened. It never even started to happen.” Instead, according to Mendenhall, “the model fundamentally changed.”

“I think there are a number of ways to measure impact,” Mendenhall added. “One of our clear missions was to establish a new model for higher education—in essence, one that measures learning as opposed to time, measuring what students know, and graduating them based on that, rather than on the number of credit hours they have accumulated.”

In 2008, WGU’s enrollment reached 10,000, and is projected to increase to 15,000 by 2011. Mendenhall pointed out that these figures are two years ahead of the projections offered in the 2006 article. “It’s a little faster than we had anticipated,” he said. WGU has awarded more than 700 degrees, and there are now more than 3,000 graduates of the university.

“We graduated 2,300 students in the last two years,” Mendenhall said. “We had 5,200 students two years ago, so more than half of those students have graduated already, and those numbers will get bigger every year.”

In late 2006, WGU won accreditation from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, making it the only online teachers college to be accredited by the organization. The teachers college accounts for nearly two-thirds of WGU’s enrollment.

There are now 36 degree programs, plus several post-baccalaureate programs at WGU. “We have introduced new degrees in the health college,” Mendenhall said, referring to the College of Health Professions, which the university launched in fall 2006. “There is an MBA in healthcare management, an MS in health education, two master’s degrees in nursing, and a bachelor’s in nursing for existing RNs.” The university also has new programs in special education and educational leadership.

But WGU is no longer at the forefront of distance education. “Everyone’s doing it now,” Mendenhall said. “Most of it isn’t very good. Most of it is just putting the classroom on the computer, a mode of distribution,” he said, adding that WGU has a different emphasis.

“We are at the vanguard of the national focus on affordability and accessibility,” he said. “Over 75 percent of WGU students are underserved, coming from one of four categories: low income, minority, rural, or first-generation (college student). In the key parameters in the national debate on access, affordability and accountability, WGU is a leading example of how a new model can address those concerns.”

Tuition at WGU increased by $100 in September 2008, to $2,890 per six-month term. “It is the first increase in three years,” Mendenhall said. “We are quite focused on delivering higher education cost-effectively and without double-digit tuition increases.”

When congress reauthorized the Higher Education Act in 2007, distance education was made eligible for full financial aid. “That’s a huge national impact,” Mendenhall said. “We can’t take all the credit for it, because online ed has grown significantly in the last ten years. But we were one of the earlier ones, and instrumental in getting financial aid for distance education.”

Congress has also made competency programs eligible for financial aid. “In essence, they said that programs that utilize direct assessment of learning, in lieu of clock hours or credit hours, are eligible for federal financial aid,” Mendenhall said.

The competency-based approach is in step with a larger national emphasis on outcomes in education, but Mendenhall is hard-pressed to cite examples of such programs elsewhere in higher education. “This has made it much easier for other institutions to adopt this type of model, but we can not point to another institution that does it that way,” he said.

“That’s the reason we started as a new institution,” Mendenhall added. “It’s very difficult to start a higher education institution. But that’s easier than changing one.”

—Todd Sallo

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