Last week, Western Governors University announced a new scholarship program designed to help a small number of students academically displaced by the closure of ITT Technical Institute to continue their college education. The announcement, one of dozens made by traditional and non-traditional institutions around the country, was in reaction to a dramatic shift in higher education that is changing on narratives about technology, affordability, industry and public investment.
Since 1999, WGU has centered its institutional mission around all outcomes from all of these narratives, framing its academic delivery model through competency-based education for working adult learners. Education Dive spoke with President Scott Pulsipher about WGU's success as an online non-profit institution, and the areas which allow the school to be adaptive in the changing higher ed climate.
EDUCATION DIVE: Western Governors trends towards serving an adult learner, and non-traditional entry into higher education. With your success within that model, particularly in online learning which can have tricky elements for completion. What do you think sets you apart from peer institutions?
SCOTT PULSIPHER: We’ve recognized that there’s a very large portion of the adult population in the U.S. that has some some college but no degree. And when you look at the areas in the workforce and the economy that need trained workers and credentialed individuals, that number is very large, and by 2020, there’s going to be a 5 million shortfall in the number of degree and certificate holders that will be needed in the workforce. So we set about to address this challenge, recognizing that there will be greater than 30 million adults who will need to be credentialed or to hold a degree, but that it also needs to be become more accessible and affordable.
Some of the core differences in our model are, first and foremost, we recognize that the standard of learning we have to keep constant. We believe that every individual can achieve, but they begin at different points and learn in different ways, and so while time may vary and approach, if you keep learning constant, that is the education that needs to be delivered. So it’s a competency based approach that we’ve figured out can be delivered in an online model.
The other key factor around this model is the disaggregation of the faculty model. We’ve taken the faculty member and broken down into specific roles. So we have course faculty, and separately, we recognize that our adult learners are juggling many different priorities, so we also take into consideration mentoring that needs to occur to help students stay on progress with degree goals. We’ve also separated the evaluation, independent faculty members who can accurately deliver and measure those assessments to ensure that students are meeting the bar.
A lot of what we’re hearing today revolves around faculty diversity and diverse student composition. Is this important in WGU’s model, and if so, how is that put into action?
PULSIPHER: Being a Harvard graduate, I understand and saw the Socratic model, and we benefited from the diversity of the student body and the faculty because it added a lot of the elements of the learning model. But our model at WGU is distinctly different, so we focus on having the best and highest quality content, and the resources that best deliver that content to the students. But it doesn’t depend upon the diversity of faculty. We think about the experiences, the integration of audio and video, gamification and mechanisms that measure learning and understanding.
We think about social engagement and how peer to peer interaction happens in a technological model, so we prioritize differently what we consider in the quality of the student experience because the classroom is not one of the key requirements. We have an immense amount of data about student engagement and what those engagements are, with technology, cohorts, and we take this data and evaluate the correlation of those with student progress and outcomes.
With the competency-based model, because you’re talking about a student body that generally has had work experience and brings a unique set of understanding and skills into the learning environment that younger or first time students may not have had, how do you engage people who’ve been in the work world who understand mobility, but who also understand they need a degree to advance.
PULSIPHER: That’s one of the key aspects to that. It’s part of our awareness development and the understanding that higher education and credentials are available to every individuals. They need to see that not only that they’re under the pressure of the workforce environment, but they’re not always aware that WGU are available out there for them. They are left to consider residence based models and they hear about loan debt and the challenges about why that isn’t accessible to them. So we’re trying to increase awareness about a model that is available to them and available where they are in their family situation, not having to move.
They have to know, that in our model, we take them with the knowledge that they have and experiences and behaviors they’ve developed, and adapted the model to meet their experiences. When they are motivated to obtain the degree, we have the mentoring, one-to-one interaction that is checking in, and really saying, ‘we had these assignments last week and how have we progressed on those?’ Human psychology is such that, when I see milestones being attained, it accelerates my interest in attaining the next milestone. So that’s a key part of our fast start; helping students realize that they can attain their goal quickly with the right faculty and mentor support models in areas that may be new or big refreshers for them.
Where do you see the future of higher education, with everything suggesting that you still need it to secure a job, and it still will cost a lot to get it, so where is higher ed as an industry, and what is WGU’s role in that?
PULSIPHER: I would say that in the current kind of horizon, accessibility is a key factor. It’s related to the time they have available for education, geographic limitations or affordability. We need to increase accessibility, and recognize that the Internet has dramatically increased that ability. One of our key value propositions is that you can attain your degree where you are, which will allow you to find work where you are without relocation or transition into different work environments.
The second thing is affordability, and we believe we are among the few addressing the cost side of higher education. No one is reducing the costs of education, which is growing more than twice the rate of inflation, but everyone is happy to figure out new loan models or grants, so they can pay for it. I’m just not certain that institutions providing education are thinking about how they deliver new models for making degrees available. We’re in a great position because we started with a tech model, and I’m not surprised to see traditional schools offering online degrees
The third is improving the quality of the experience and the outcome. Applying technology and data and learning science gives us a lot more science about how individuals learn, and how can we change so that attainment is forever improving.
And lastly, how do we better align higher education with economic opportunity? The debate between a traditional liberal arts education, centered on problem solving, reasoning, capacity for learning; but how does that intersect with opportunity? We can’t keep funding learning that isn’t lending to economic development. Those are always a part of the agenda, but for us, we’re really focused on accessibility and affordability, and it's a big part of how we continue to increase the awareness of technology as a learning model with competency based education. It’s the underserved populations, this first-time college students where the system is not accustomed to serving them, and that is forever going to be a priority for us.