WGU challenges for-profits

Western Governors University — an accredited, low-cost, nonprofit online university — is The College For-profits Should Fear, writes John Gravois in the  Washington Monthly. Designed for working adults, WGU costs less than $6,000 a year, while tuition at for-profit universities averages $15,600.

WGU degrees are based on competency, not on “seat time,” so students can move at their own pace.

By gathering information from employers, industry experts, and academics, Western Governors formulates a detailed, institution- wide sense of what every graduate of a given degree program needs to know. Then they work backward from there, defining what every student who has taken a given course needs to know. As they go, they design assessments—tests—of all those competencies. “Essentially,” says Kevin Kinser, a professor of education at the State University of New York at Albany, “they’re creating a bar exam for each point along the way that leads to a degree.”

. . . At the beginning of a course, students are given a test called a “pre-assessment.” Then they have a conversation with their mentor—a kind of personal coach assigned to each student for the duration of their degree program—to discuss which concepts in the course they already grasp, which they still need to master, and how to go about closing the gap. The students are then offered a broad set of “learning resources”—a drab phrase, sure, but no more so than “crowded lecture hall”—that may include videos, textbooks, online simulations, conversations with a WGU course mentor (an expert in the subject matter who is on call to answer questions), or even tutors in the student’s hometown.

Students pay $6,000 for as many courses as they can finish in two semesters.  The average student is able to complete a bachelor’s degree in two and a half years for about $15,000.

Traditional-age students don’t do well in WGU’s online, competency-based program, but the model works for adults with some college and work experience. The average student is 36 years old, the same as in University of Phoenix’s online programs.

WGU offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, business, information technology and health professions, mainly nursing. The model works well for professions with a proficiency test, such as the nursing certification exam or the Praxis for teachers, Gravois writes. For example, Ray Shawn McKinnon, a former pastor hoping for a business career, will have to pass the national human resources management certification exam to earn his MBA in human resources.

In an online education sector plagued by accusations of low quality, Western Governors can show that its degrees are backstopped by the official guardians of various professions. (It also helps that WGU students tend to score higher than the national average on such professional exams.)

WGU’s six-year graduation rate — calculated by the feds only for first-time, full-time students — is only 22 percent, the same as the for-profit average.  WGU estimates 40 percent of all students, including part-timers and those returning to college, complete a degree.  Those rates look back to 2004, when WGU’s program was weaker, writes Gravois. This year, 77 percent of first-year students returned for a second year, “higher than the national average at both for-profits and traditional schools.”

As the for-profit colleges report shrinking enrollments, WGU’s enrollment is growing by 30 percent a year.  Indiana has made WGU a state university, which means students can qualify for state aid. Washington, Texas, California and Arizona and other states may follow suit.

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