When people are asked to think of a college, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is the vision of a campus: a physical place where all students get together to learn. Indeed, colleges invest heavily in campuses, which are often one of the main points students consider when choosing a college to attend. But Western Governors University does not have a physical campus where students show up and learn.
That is not the only way in which Western Governors University (WGU) is different than the traditional institute of higher learning. The school has no professors, and prioritizes student success over research and the associated prestige. Instead, the school uses another system where students interact with course instructors, evaluators, and mentors: each individual having their own role to play in the success of a student. WGU is changing the way we think about higher education, from an experience that exists only in-person and is focused on tests, to one of competency-based learning taken online.
In the mid-1990s, 19 governors expressed a concern about bringing higher education to rural populations, which were traditionally underserved by the university model. These governors decided that the best way to solve this problem would be to create a new university specifically focused on assisting students in rural areas and working adults who may not otherwise be able to attend college. During its founding, the school emphasized the importance of information technology in promoting access to its services, and this vision has since paid off.
WGU, which has been enrolling students for over three decades, currently has 110,000 students in its program coming from every state in the U.S. This is another way in which the university is different to a traditional institution. Because students take courses online, WGU’s programs can scale up more effectively. According to WGU’s 2018 annual report, 50 percent of students graduate within six years, which is higher than the 38 percent national average, and a whopping 97 percent of students are satisfied with the quality of their education.
What makes WGU’s approach so disruptive? We’ll answer that question by analyzing three of its main differentiators: the faculty, technology, and the business model of a competency-based teaching approach.
Creating a New Faculty Model
WGU offers programs to learners in four main industries: business, education, information technology (IT), and healthcare. All of these programs are offered to students online, and the school has no physical campus. Thus, the school has had to adapt its faculty model to ensure students are given the support they need to succeed.
In traditional universities, faculty have a variety of responsibilities—curriculum development, assessing students, evaluating courses, etc.—but their two primary ones are research and teaching. In larger schools, the most senior professors often spend their time focusing on research, which means students don’t always benefit from their experience in the classroom. Instead of having one title to describe senior faculty members—the “professor”—WGU breaks down its faculty into groups of specialized employees.
The first group are course instructors. These closely resemble the idea of a traditional college lecturer, and often have a PhD or advanced degree in a specific topic. At WGU, course instructors both teach students, and open themselves up for questions to help students engage more with the course material. Instructors are also tasked with ensuring students stay on track, and are given the support they need if they fall behind.
The WGU faculty also includes program mentors, which have become a crucial part of many new learning strategies over the last decade. Program mentors provide students with mentorship and advice on a weekly basis, or on a more frequent cadence if a student needs more assistance. Mentors are important to WGU as many of their students are adult learners, who often have jobs, and who may therefore need one-on-one support to stay on track.
In addition, the school also employs curriculum staff to help design WGU’s programs. This ensures that instructors can focus on teaching and supporting students, rather than designing the syllabi for new programs—a time consuming endeavor. The final part of the faculty model are evaluators; who are responsible for ensuring students have acquired a certain range of skills.
Traditional institutions leverage a very different model. Often, universities hire adjuncts to teach classes, this position has become known for its low pay and job insecurity. WGU does not need to rely on adjuncts, as the entire model of educating students is divided into specialized roles for workers to fulfill. WGU also works with industry experts to ensure each program maintains a firm focus on teaching the skills people need to thrive in the workforce; teaching students employment-relevant material is a core concern in higher education.
Embracing new Technology in Higher Education
Over the last few years, higher education institutions have experimented with a variety of new technologies, but most of these technologies have become part of the traditional on-campus experience, rather than part of an online-only offering. In the private sector, companies have invested heavily in MOOCs, which have suffered from a different problem: they are fully online, and students have struggled to find the accountability they need to complete a course. WGU, on the other hand, has developed a technology-first model which can operate as its own program, while ensuring students stay on-track.
Online learning is at the core of WGU. Their primary aim is to provide a high-quality education to rural workers and adult learners, which often either cannot travel to a nearby campus, or who have to work and need to learn on their own schedule. WGU offers a flexible learning model where students can take classes completely online, which means students can learn on their own terms.
An online-first approach has helped WGU promote diversity. 73 percent of its students work full-time in addition to attending the school, and 12 percent are either military personnel, veterans, or have families they need to care for. In addition, 43 percent of WGU’s student body are first-generation students, and 23 percent come from low-income backgrounds. All of this proves that online education can support a whole new generation of learners, who are not served by the current system.
This model does not only empower more students to consider higher education at a school such as WGU, it also has massive ramifications on the scalability of the school. WGU has been able to enroll over 110,000 students in large part because it is an online school. WGU does not have to pay for a campus, and they can record lectures to be used for multiple future student groups. Overall, the variable costs for WGU are significantly lower than those of a traditional school, which allows them to expand access to their services to even more students.
Disrupting the Business Model of Higher Education
WGU’s business model has a number of significant differences from the idea of a traditional college. Firstly, the school’s main aim is supporting working adults and people from rural areas, not the young people aged between 18 and 24 who are going from high school to college. This focus allows WGU to tailor their offerings specifically to the needs of working adults—for example, through providing hands-on mentorship to students—and therefore offer a more immersive experience to their students.
The school also has a simplified value proposition: to educate students well. WGU is focused on helping students succeed to the best of their ability, by investing in mentors, more specialist faculty members, and a competency-based learning model. Traditional universities, on the other hand, often have large donor and research operations to consider, which can adversely affect the quality of a student’s education. One of the biggest lessons we can take away from WGU might be that new university models may benefit from a refined value proposition.
The school is also a pioneer of competency-based education, an approach to learning where students can determine their own pace. Because the school operates online, students can go through the course at a speed with which they are comfortable—there are no time-based units students must complete. Students can only move onto the next topic when they have demonstrated they have mastered a certain topic, which prevents students from advancing until they have learned the fundamentals. This appears to be working, evidenced by the high graduation and student satisfaction rates.
Finally, WGU’s online approach allows them to offer a more affordable education than other schools. Whereas the cost of tuition has more than doubled since 1987-88 in private nonprofit four-year schools (and tripled in public four-year institutions), WGU’s tuition has remained steady.
WGU charges students around $6,500 per year, and average student loan balances at the school are less than half of the national average. This demonstrates that with an online approach, colleges can cut costs while still earning enough money to operate. Students also pay for each six-month term at the school, rather than per credit hour. WGU also doesn’t receive any state appropriations, unlike many colleges and universities—the school earns its revenue almost entirely through tuition.
WGU is Rethinking Higher Education
The WGU model demonstrates the fact that higher education can and will be disrupted in the near future. WGU has ignored many of the norms in higher education when designing their model, which has allowed them to create a student-centric program based on modern learning pedagogies. The school’s online-first approach has not only allowed them to promote access, but also to develop a sustainable and scalable business model—something traditional universities have struggled to achieve recently.
WGU has also been able to leverage new faculty models which help them provide personalized support to their students. And the school’s online approach has allowed them to pioneer a new model of competency-based education, where students only advance onto the next topic in a course when they have demonstrated their proficiency in certain materials.
Today, WGU educates more than 110,000 students from all different states, each of whom is likely to graduate with an average debt balance significantly lower than the national average. The school may only be a few decades old, but it has thus far taught us many lessons about how higher education can be disrupted for the better, if the right approach is taken.