Western Governors University (WGU) was formally established in 1996 by the governors of 19 western states. From its inception it was committed to delivering all of its programs through distance technologies and to graduating its students only on the basis of their demonstrated competency. It is today the only regionally accredited university in the United States to award its degrees exclusively on this basis. Developing the university and proving its viability, however, have not been easy. The enthusiasm surrounding its launching in 1996 rapidly gave way to the hard realities of establishing a new educational paradigm. Within five years, after accreditation seemed slow in coming and enrollments in the new university even slower, many in the higher education establishment wrote WGU off as a failed experiment. Some even breathed a sigh of relief that the claims of competencybased education could be written off. But eight years after its formal incorporation, WGU is very much alive. It has received national accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council (2001) and unprecedented regional accreditation by four of the nation’s regional accrediting associations.1 No other institution in the history of American higher education has received multi-regional accreditation, and given the complexities of such reviews, WGU achieved that milestone in a remarkably short time. By January 2005 the university had an enrollment just over 3,200 students and was growing by more than 200 students a month.
Why A New University
The concerns that motivated 19 governors to sponsor a new university along radically different lines were national issues, not local ones. They were concerns about broad public policy then, and if anything they have become more urgent since. Chief among the governor’s concerns were these:
• That the rising cost of higher education combined with population growth in their states would outrun the money supply for more brick-and-mortar campus solutions.
• That their states’ colleges and universities were producing graduates whose skills were uneven, unreliable, and insufficient to meet their future needs for a highly skilled workforce.
• That their states’ higher education officials were unresponsive to their concerns about these matters.
In launching WGU, the governors saw distance delivery not only as a means of combating costs, but of expanding access. Indeed, issues of access intersected with all of their concerns. It was often prohibitively costly for remote students in the west to travel regularly to a campus, let alone to live there. Those students, often older and “nontraditional,” were not well-served by traditional campus expectations and services. And poor and prohibitively costly service that locked out these students meant that their state economies could not benefit from their developed potential. In response to similar concerns about access from states, employers, and citizens across the country, distance learning has since seen explosive growth.
For the founding governors, distance learning was not merely the lifeline for students living in remote locations. They understood that it reflected a sea-change in Americans’ fundamental attitudes toward and participation in higher education. Both remote students and those living on or near campuses who simply want to dissociate themselves from classrooms are redefining the higher education experience. Not since GIs returning to college after World War II have the demographics of American higher education been so transformed. Already by the turn of this century, nearly 75% of all undergraduates were in some way nontraditional. More than 50% were financially independent and nearly 50% attended college part-time, while nearly 40% were over 25 years of age and worked full time, and more than a quarter had dependents (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2004). And finally, by the time these students earn their bachelor’s degrees, at least 60% of them will have attended more than one institution (Business-Higher Education Forum, 2004). The western governors foresaw these trends and sought to design a university that would help to lead them.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Education: One of the three principal degree areas offered at WGU. Bachelor’s and master’s degrees are available in elementary education, and in secondary school mathematics, science, and social studies. A general Master’s of Education degree and a Master’s of Arts in Learning and Technology are also available
Business: One of the three principal degree areas offered at WGU. AS and BS degrees are currently available in a variety of emphasis areas, an MBA with emphases in management and information technology is also available
Learning Outcomes: Often used at other institutions as a synonym for competencies, but generally defined more broadly and sometimes confused with completion of assignments. An acceptable learning outcome might be, for instance, a passing grade on an essay. Unless the assignment is carefully designed, however, neither the essay nor its grade may reveal much about the true extent of the student’s knowledge, skills, and abilities in the subject area. It is this imprecision that led WGU to prefer the greater specificity of “competencies.”
Assessment: The process and/or the instruments for determining a student’s mastery of the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to earn a WGU degree. At WGU, assessments include objective tests, essays, performance tasks, and portfolio presentations
Certification: The confirmation that external professional requirements have been met. WGU teacher education programs offer certification in elementary education, as well as in secondary school mathematics, science, and social studies. The university can also assist business students in obtaining certification as a human resource professional, and information technology students in obtaining a variety of external professional certifications
Information Technology: One of three principal degree areas offered at WGU. Bachelor’s degrees are offered in a wide variety of IT-related specialties. An MBA in information technology management is also available.
Mentor: The principal faculty role at WGU. Every student has a personal mentor to help design the degree plan and guide the student in completing it. Mentors work with students from admission to graduation as advisors, coaches, tutors, problem solvers, and (often) as goads to help students fulfill their own learning aspirations
Prior Learning: Refers to the knowledge, skills, and abilities that students have acquired prior to enrolling in a college program. While many adult-oriented institutions evaluate such learning and award credit for it, WGU requires students to demonstrate their mastery by passing assessments. Students may sit for their assessments at any time, however, and accelerate toward their degrees as rapidly as they can pass them
Demographics: Refers in this context to the changing population profile of the United States, to its implications for higher education, to the reasons for the explosive growth of distance learning, and to a principal reason the western governors established WGU
Competency: Demonstrated command of the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for effective performance in a particular degree area