Domestic, Interview, Required, top, Universities & Colleges - Written by on Thursday, August 9, 2012 6:00 - 0 Comments

Interview: Western Governor’s University Chief Robert W. Mendenhall On WGU’s Growth

Western Governor’s University is one of the good guys battling to increase the percent of Americans with college degrees. It doesn’t have a profit motive because it is a nonprofit, online university (unlike its numerous for-profit college peers). It’s rapidly growing with more than 33,000 students in every state in the USA. WGU President Dr. Robert W. Mendenhall has spoken with officials at the White House and in the Senate in recent months to explain WGU’s model and how it is using technology to deliver more than 50 bachelors and masters degrees in high demand fields such as IT, Business, K-12 teaching and health professions such as nursing. Dr. Mendenhall believes the future of affordable higher education rests in the need to cut costs and streamline processes at colleges and universities. He believes technology is a key to for colleges to adopt new models such as competency-based learning, which ensure students have learned the material they are supposed to. He answered questions from WiredAcademic editor Paul Glader via email:

WA - WGU is a little more than 10 years old now. I see from your most recent annual report that the school has dramatically grown both enrolled students. What’s been fueling that growth?

RM - WGU is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. Our first students were enrolled in 1999. Since the university received accreditation in 2003, it has grown by more than 30% per year. WGU’s growth is the result of the following factors:

  • Our competency-based learning model was designed for working adults—the average age of our students is 36 years old, and the majority of our students work and support families. These students are not able to attend a traditional bricks-and-mortar college, and WGU offers them the flexibility they need.
  • As a nonprofit, WGU is affordable—our tuition is about $6,000 per year for most of our programs. In addition, our terms begin on the first day of every month, and students pay a flat rate for each term. This means they can complete as many courses as they are able in each term, so students who have the time and ability can accelerate and finish their degrees faster, saving money as well as time.
  • We offer degrees in high demand career fields. Our programs are designed for working adults who wish to advance their careers or move into new careers in education, business, information technology or nursing.
  • As mentioned above, WGU uses a technology-enabled, competency-based learning model. This means that students receive credit when they demonstrate their knowledge of the subject matter rather than for time spent in class. Students who have prior education and experience can move quickly through material they already know so they can focus on what they still need to learn.

WA -  As a non-profit online college, who does WGU see as competition for students? For-profit colleges like University of Phoenix? Or state colleges and universities that are moving into online degree programs?

RM - WGU was created by a bi-partisan group of U.S. governors to expand capacity and access to quality higher education. As the demand for college education continues to increase and the country struggles to regain its position as number one in the percentage of college graduates, we believe that we need to offer as many options in higher education as possible. Our objective is not to compete but to expand capacity.

WA - What’s your view on for-profit colleges… what’s their long-term prognosis as investment stocks or long-term growing institutions?

RM - Many of the for-profit colleges offer quality degree programs, and as mentioned above, they play a role in providing a variety of educational opportunities for working adults.

WA - What should students consider when looking at attending a for-profit college? What should students be wary of from your view?

RM - Each student should select the option that does the best job of meeting his or her needs, regardless of for-profit or nonprofit status. Always make sure that the college or university is accredited, and take time to do your homework to make sure that the program and the university you select offers the quality, pricing, and degree program you need. A good way to learn about a university is through social media. Take time to visit Facebook pages and blogs to see what others are saying about the school  you’re considering.

WA - How do you market / recruit students… when you are competing against very savvy marketers in the for-profit colleges?

RM - As a nonprofit, WGU spends much less than nonprofit universities on marketing. More than 30% of our new students come to us by word of mouth—on the recommendation of other students, graduates, or even employers. The largest percentage of our marketing is done online.

WA - Have you seen an increase in student applicants since the Obama Administration clamped down on some of the abuses coming out of the for-profit college sector?

RM - Our applicants increase every year, and as mentioned above, we are growing by about 30% per year—current enrollment is nearly 34,000 students.

WA - How do you screen students to make sure they can handle classes and degree programs at WGU?

RM - As a nonprofit, WGU is focused on helping students succeed and graduate, and as a result, the university works with applicants to ensure that our online, competency-based programs are a good fit for them. The large majority of those admitted to WGU have completed at least a year of college—because we know that students with some college experience are generally more successful than those who haven’t completed any college coursework. We encourage those who haven’t completed any college work to take courses at a local community college or complete some courses at Straighterline before they enroll or apply. We also require our applicants to complete a college readiness assessment and at least one interview with an enrollment counselor.

WA - What do you think of other non-profit schools such as University of the People and New Charter?

RM - There are many new institutions that are using the competency-based model WGU has pioneered. We believe it’s a positive sign that other universities are developing competency-based education.

WA - Tell us about the move by states like Indiana, Texas and Washington to open their own state version of WGU? How do they compliment rather than compete for students?

RM - WGU Indiana, WGU Washington, and WGU Texas are subsidiaries of Western Governors University, endorsed by the states. WGU students in the state-based universities constitute about 24% of our total WGU enrollment.

WA - How many more of these state versions of WGU will be launching? Which ones are coming next and when?

RM - Establishment of state-based universities comes from within the states. We don’t share the names of the states considering this until the states make their announcements.

WA - There’s a lot of talk about improving community colleges in the US. What is WGU doing to link with community colleges - providing a way for two-year graduates to transfer credit and finish at WGU - and how important is that link?

RM - WGU works closely with community colleges across the country. We partner with them, offering community college graduates discounts and seamless credit transfer. Our partnerships with community colleges are very important— we offer their graduates an affordable and flexible means to complete a quality bachelor’s degree.

WA - Will you expand into new degree programs this year or next? If so, which ones?

RM - We will add a few programs in our existing four colleges, but have no plans to move into new discipline areas. We focus on four areas where there is employer need: K-12 teacher education, business, information technology, and health professions (mainly nursing).

WA - Some (such as George Will recently) have criticized the push to increase college graduation rates as one that denigrates the university and what a college degree means - i.e. the liberal arts traditions of learning a foreign language, studying humanities, attending lab science classes… (not to mention being on a rowing team and attending football tailgate parties.) How do you respond to these criticisms that WGU is contributing to a watering down of higher education?

RM - WGU’s degree programs are not watered down. All of our bachelor’s degree programs require students to complete the same liberal arts requirements they would need to complete in a traditional university. The important thing to recognize is that today, a very small percentage of those seeking to attend college are what we would consider traditional students—those who are 18-24, are likely not self-supporting, and who haven’t really entered the workforce yet. WGU was created to meet the needs of working adults who, for whatever reason, were not able to complete college as traditional students. They probably started, but family and financial responsibilities got in their way. As mentioned above, WGU was created to expand capacity not to compete with other institutions.

WA - How do you prevent cheating in online classes?

RM - WGU does not offer classes. Students do their coursework independently, guided by faculty mentors. Tests are proctored—students either go to a proctored testing center or take tests using our online proctoring system. This system proctors students remotely—live proctors monitor students using a WGU-provided camera.

WA - Does WGU / Can WGU take foreign students? If so, what % of your students are foreign nationals? Have you calculated what % of revenues they provide to the school? Do you think providing degrees to foreigners could be an export industry in the future… and one that helps development in the world?

RM - WGU is focused on providing educational opportunities within the U.S. at this time. We do have a number of military and military family members who do their studies from abroad, and we have a few students in Canada. Our current plan does not include foreign expansion.

WA - What % of your faculty are full time employees with benefits v. part-time instructors / adjuncts with no benefits? Will this change?

RM - All of our faculty members are full-time employees with benefits. We have no plans to change this.

WA - The US has an extraordinarily high number of people who dropped out of college or graduate programs but who may want to finish those degrees by taking a class or 5 to do so. Does WGU make it possible for such people to take online classes a la carte and transfer those back to their home institution? Do you think there is a need for an institution to do this as a public service to help increase graduation rates?

RM - WGU offers undergraduate and graduate programs only—we don’t offer single courses. However, the majority of our students are who you describe—individuals who have started a degree program but not completed it. We offer a means to complete their degrees without interrupting their lives.

WA - What will the college and university landscape look like in another 10 years in the US?

RM - While it’s obvious the university landscape will look different in ten years, it’s very hard to predict the pace of change. Higher education is not known for revolutionary or rapid change; however, over the past few years, the challenging economic situation, the growth of alternative models such as at WGU, and forays into new technology-based education by America’s most prominent universities suggest we may have reached a “tipping point” that will result in more rapid acceptance of alternative, technology-focused education.


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2013-02-15 16:00

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