By Pam Dixon
AS THE WESTERN Governors University prepares to launch its first pilot projects,
some of the problems facing this ambitious attempt at non-traditional higher education
have been solved but many more have not.
|Former University of Colorado administrator
Robert Albrecht is WGU's chief academic officer
On the positive side, in little more than two years, WGU has advanced from an
idea proposed by two governors-Democrat Roy Romer of Colorado and Republican Mike
Leavitt of Utah-to a consortium of 16 states and one territory (Guam) that is about
to test its first degree and certificate programs.
Romer, Leavitt and other governors who face rapidly rising college enrollments
hope that WGU, emphasizing computer and television instruction and other "distance
education" methods, will provide a less expensive alternative to building new
WGU officials say a limited number of students will be able to sign up for the
first three pilot programs in February-a general Associate of Arts degree and an
Associate of Applied Science in Electronic Manufacturing Technologies. A non-degree
"certificate of mastery" in electronic manufacturing technologies also
will be offered.
In addition to offering degrees and certificates, Western Governors University
also will serve as a broker, matching students with distance education courses already
available from colleges and universities in the member states.
Twenty-one educational institutions and high tech companies have agreed to provide
courses for WGU so far (see sidebar). Most are public colleges and universities but
one is a private school (Regis University, in Denver) and two are high tech firms-Novell,
Inc. and International Thompson Publishing.
An electronic "SmartCatalog/Advisor," listing WGU's first 50 or so courses,
is expected to be available soon. By April 1, when WGU is supposed to be open to
all, perhaps 125 course listings will be in the electronic catalog.
Several "back room" services have been arranged. Washington State University
will handle course registrations, the University of New Mexico will offer online
library services, and the Illinois-based Follett Corp. will provide bookstore services
through an extensive online catalog.
But many important tasks remain undone.
WGU will be "competency based." That is, students will advance only
after they have demonstrated mastery of the material, not after completing a certain
number of courses or credit hours. Their progress is to be monitored by "mentors":
full-time WGU employees who come from either academic life or from business or industry.
However, only one monitor had been hired when this article was completed in mid-January.
Jeffrey Livingston, WGU's chief operating officer, said only a few mentors are
needed for the pilot programs and that many more will be hired later. However, several
educators who have been watching WGU's development closely believe the multi-state
university will have a hard time gaining its badly-needed accreditation unless much
more is known about both the size and the quality of the mentor corps.
A set of competencies for the first two pilot program degrees has been largely
completed-by the national Center for Higher Education Management Systems, in Boulder,
Colorado-but an assessment council that is supposed to evaluate the tests is not
in place, nor are there as yet any assessment centers, where students can go to have
their mastery of course material tested.
Plans for student centers, where advice and counsel and access to technology would
be available to students, and where assessments could be made, seem to have been
moved to the back burner. Once, these were believed to be critical to the success
of the Western Governors University. Now, according to Robert Albrecht, chief academic
officer, they are still in the plans but are not at the top of the agenda.
"One of our financing mechanisms didn't come through," Jeffrey Livingston
explained, so the student centers have been delayed. "We don't think we need
to have them for the pilots but we still think they are crucial and we'll have to
have them in place for our general opening in the spring."
WGU still has not announced what courses will be offered when the pilot programs
begin nor what they will cost. Livingston said registration fees might be waived
for students in the pilots but they will have to pay tuition to provider institutions
for the courses they take. Albrecht estimated that these costs could range from $75
to $400 per course.
|Jeffrey Livingston, former aide to Utah Governor
Mike Leavitt, is chief operating officer of the Western Governors University
There are transfer problems to solve, since WGU will measure student progress
through "learning modules," not the credit hours or courses completed that
are commonly used by colleges and universities.
There is no certainty that the Western Governors University will be accredited
by the several regional accrediting bodies that now are studying the question. Nor
is it clear how WGU will scale the barriers created by the many different higher
education laws and regulations in each of its member states.
With all these problems still to be solved, many people involved in the WGU effort
have urged a "go slow" approach. "Let's not promise more than we can
deliver," one of them said. But people close to the planning process say that
some governors are pushing for a fast start, even if WGU is only partly ready.
"There's a political reality that's making all this possible," one planner
said. "There's a pace that has to be maintained that is, frankly, overwhelming."
Some planners fear that WGU is making a mistake by making claims that cannot be
supported, at least not yet.
"The hype is out in front of the infrastructure," one insider said.
"There is a substantial disconnect between the PR about WGU and what is actually
Said an accrediting agency official, "Their public information effort is
four and a half steps ahead of the people who are doing the work."
Livingston acknowledged the problem. "There's kind of a dilemma that we've
got here," he said, "between pressure to move fast and wanting to do this
Western Governors University has dual headquarters. Livingston and the marketing
and public relation staff are in Salt Lake City, Utah, while Albrecht's small academic
staff is housed in Aurora, Colorado, outside Denver.
The planned budget for this fiscal year is $12 million, Livingston said, while
the financial plan calls for an annual budget of $50 million to $75 million by the
2005-2006 academic year.
Where this money will come from is a mystery.
Each state paid $100,000 to join the consortium but that money was spent long
ago. WGU has received several foundation grants, and the State of Colorado recently
chipped in $3 million for curriculum development. The university will receive some
fee revenue for brokering distance education courses by member state institutions.
Of late, WGU has turned increasingly to private corporations for help. Several companies,
including Microsoft, 3-COM, IBM, Apple and AT&T, have paid at least $250,000
apiece, in cash or "in kind" services, for the privilege of joining the
WGU National Advisory Board.
|A Lineup of Course Providers
|THE WESTERN Governors University's first course providers include
16 public colleges and universities, one private university and two corporations:
|University of Alaska Learning Cooperative
|Northern Arizona University
|Colorado Electronic Community College
|Dallas County Community College (Texas)
|University of Guam
|University of Hawaii
|Montana State University (Bozeman)
|Community College of Southern Nevada
|North Dakota State College of Science
|Chadron State College (Nebraska)
|Eastern New Mexico University
|Oklahoma State University
|Eastern Oregon University
|Utah State University
|Washington State University
|University of Wyoming
|Regis University (Denver, Colorado)
|International Thompson Publishing
This movement toward a corporate funding model has caused WGU to lose some of
its original appeal in large western states with small populations.
"The need for money is driving this now," said a top higher education
official in one of the member states, who asked not to be identified. "The emphasis
is on job-training programs for large corporations in urban settings, not on distance
education in remote locations."
"I don't believe the board would allow us to drift away from the remote rural
areas," he said, "since that was one of the initial purposes of WGU."
Even corporate support is not likely to keep WGU afloat until student revenue
allows the multi-state institution to become self supporting. How will bills be paid
in the meantime?
"We're exploring with our board some different options for raising dollars
but we're not ready to discuss them publicly yet," Livingston said.
So long-range financing for WGU remains uncertain, as do many other aspects of
its operations. It is difficult to write about the Western Governors University because
so many details are murky and are likely to remain so for some time. However, what
follows is an attempt to describe where things seem to stand in several important
The electronic manufacturing technologies certificate and degree were selected
because of a need for workers in the microchip industry and related businesses. The
general Associate of Arts degree is intended, in part, for students who want to transfer
to the four-year baccalaureate programs that WGU hopes to offer in the future.
No more than 200 students will be permitted to enroll in the pilots, which Livingston
described as "a way to test all our systems." With the starting date almost
at hand, however, WGU officials could not say what courses would be offered, how
much they would cost or how and where student mastery of the course material and
required skills would be tested.
While testing the degree and certificate programs, WGU expects to be actively
engaged in arranging for its students to take distance education courses already
offered by many colleges and universities in the member states.
That is fine with institutions like Washington State University, where on-campus
enrollment is flat but off-campus, distance education enrollment is skyrocketing.
President Samuel H. Smith thinks that teaming with WGU will add even more off-campus
"We're gambling that down the road a significant part of the market is going
to want non-traditional course delivery," Smith said. "If you're willing
to make changes and take risks, this is a growth period."
An unanswered question is: Why would off-campus students bother to enroll in the
Western Governors University if they can get the same computerized or electronic
instruction directly from Washington State?
WGU degrees will not be unusual in subject matter or scope but the structure will
be very different. Each Associate degree will consist of about 12 "learning
modules." For example, one module in the general Associate of Arts degree would
cover quantitative analysis, including mathematics and math reasoning skills.
"A course is normally defined in terms of credit hours, or time," said
Albrecht, the chief academic officer, "but a WGU module is defined in terms
When a student, under the guidance of a mentor, has learned the material in one
of these modules-by taking courses listed in the "SmartCatalog" or in some
other way, that student asks to be tested. Much of the testing is to be done at the
assessment centers that do not as yet exist.
Content for the pilot programs apparently has been agreed upon but WGU officials
were not able to say which courses from what providers would enable a student to
meet the requirements.
This electronic system will tell students what courses are available-the medium
(such as the Web or videocasette or satellite), the time courses are offered, what
they cost and other necessary information.
Students also will be able to use the catalog/advisor to register for courses,
order books, request library materials and monitor their progress toward a degree,
said Sally Johnstone, director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications,
which did the design work. "This is a 'one of a kind' system," Johnstone
At first the electronic catalog will list only about 50 courses-two or three from
each of the 19 providers (see sidebar). Some of these will relate to the pilot programs;
some will not. WGU officials and planners were unwilling as late as mid-January to
say what these courses might be. By April 1 there could be as many as 125 listings,
"As a competency-driven institution, the testing aspect of WGU is going to
be crucial," said Peter Ewell, senior associate at the National Center for Higher
Education Management Systems.
Some assessments will be paper and pencil tests; others, when appropriate, will
be hands-on tests conducted in laboratories or work settings. According to Albrecht,
the assessments will cost $75 to $100 each.
Ewell is in the process of identifying currently available tests-like the New
Jersey Test of Basic Skills-that match the WGU learning modules. He said 80 to 90
percent of the modules can be tested by instruments that already exist. For example,
there are nationally accepted standards for the skill levels needed to earn the electronic
manufacturing technologies certificate and degree.
However, the assessments must be done at secure locations and these have not yet
been identified. A ten-member Assessment Council, which will help to select and evaluate
the tests that are used to measure student progress, has yet to be named.
The members of this council and two others-a Providers Council, which will screen
courses and programs for the SmartCatalog/Advisor, and a Program Council, charged
with supervision of the content of WGU degrees and certificates, will be college
and university faculty members working part-time for WGU. But none of this is in
place as the pilot programs begin.
These will be full-time WGU employees who "will have the same credentials
as beginning faculty," Livingston said. "They will hold the terminal degree
in their fields."
A WGU mentor will serve as the student's primary academic advisor, exploring the
student's background and goals, determining what skills the student already has and
which ones need to be acquired. Most of this will be done by telephone or e-mail.
When the mentor determines that the student has mastered, say, four learning modules
needed for a particular degree, the mentor will advise the student to take those
"The heart of this degree work is in helping the student find sources for
the content and then coming for assessment," Albrecht said. "That's the
guts of it."
He stressed that how the student acquires the knowledge or skill, whether through
work experience, self study, distance learning or standard college courses, is not
important. What is important is proof of the knowledge gained or skills mastered.
But the role of the mentor is crucial in this process and, although both Albrecht
and Livingston say there are plans to hire at least 100 mentors, so far there is
SIXTEEN STATES and the Territory of Guam are participating members
of the Western Governors University. The states are Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii,
Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas,
Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Each paid $100,000 to join.
Indiana, Kansas and Pennsylvania are in serious discussions with WGU and might join
in the near future, said Jeffrey Livingston, the university's chief operating officer.
In addition, WGU has agreements with the British Open University, the University
of British Columbia, Tokai University in Japan and the Virtual University of Mexico.
Livingston said these are not binding financial agreements, like those with the various
American states, but "memorandums of understanding which essentially state that
WGU and the parties involved promise to talk further."
In early discussions, these were considered all-important to WGU's success but
they seem to have faded in importance as the planning effort has continued.
The centers are to be outposts in each member state where students can gain access
to computers and other technological tools and where they can get advice from actual
human beings, not from electronic devices. The centers might also be used for assessment
However, as soon as WGU establishes a physical presence in a state, it becomes
subject to strict higher education laws and regulations that vary from state to state.
For example, how will WGU deal with the fact that each state charges a different
out-of-state tuition fee?
John Calhoon, former senior policy advisor to Colorado Governor Romer and a consultant
to WGU, has compiled a four-inch-thick report detailing every complexity facing WGU
as it seeks to operate in all of its member states.
According to Calhoon's report (which excludes Texas, which was not yet a member
when the report was prepared), WGU probably will be able to gain entry into all of
the member states on some sort of experimental basis, because of the political clout
of the governors involved.
"But still, the details of how each state will have to be handled will be
on an individual basis," Calhoon emphasized. "There are no shortcuts. It's
a huge process."
These are difficult to pin down, even though the start-up date for the pilot programs
is at hand.
WGU has not announced its registration fees or what students will be charged to
take courses listed in the SmartCatalog. The only firm figure is the $75 to $100
per assessment charge cited by Albrecht.
A consultant's report suggested that WGU charge an admission fee of $50, plus
a $20 enrollment fee for each course. In addition, there will be fees for using the
online library and book services. Livingston suggested that fees might be waived
for students in the pilot programs, but said they would have to pay for the courses
themselves. Albrecht said these charges could range from $75 to $400.
Western Governors University, which has no campus, no faculty (except the "mentors")
and no courses of its own, presents special problems for the nation's accrediting
Because WGU hopes to set up shop in so many different places, four different regional
accrediting agencies formed a special body known as the Interregional Accrediting
Commission (IRAC) for the exclusive purpose of dealing with WGU's complex accreditation
request. This was done after Governors Romer and Leavitt met with accreditors several
IRAC includes representatives from the North Central Association of Colleges and
Schools, the Northwest Association of Colleges and Schools and two subsets of the
Western Association of Schools and Colleges-one for community and junior colleges
and the other for senior institutions.
Steve Crow, executive director of the North Central agency, said the four regional
bodies were motivated to work together because WGU afforded an opportunity to create
a potentially important alternative model. "There is a clear awareness of a
new agenda," Crow said. "We don't want to get caught with a limited number
of accrediting tools. We've got to come up with new approaches and answers."
At the same time, accreditation officials worry about the quality of WGU's offerings.
"We want to be sure the accreditation process doesn't kill this promising
idea," said one, "but we also don't want it to kill us."
At this point, WGU has not submitted an eligibility application to IRAC. Eligibility
means only that WGU is potentially accreditable. Beyond that lies the "candidacy"
period, during which the institution must conduct a self-study and also must submit
to evaluation by others.
So far, IRAC has come up with a list of 20 eligibility requirements that WGU must
meet before it can continue with the accreditation process. "If WGU fulfills
its plans, it has the potential to be accreditable," Steve Crow said. But he
added, "I'd like to see them move a little faster."
Other accrediting agency officials said that without such important elements as
the mentors, faculty councils and assessment and student centers in place, it will
be impossible to judge WGU's quality. "There's nothing there yet to look at,"
It is too early to know how the recent decision of Texas to join the WGU consortium
will affect the accreditation process. The inclusion of Texas means that yet another
accrediting agency-the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission-comes
James T. Rogers, executive director of the southern agency, said that he, like
other accreditors, has questions about WGU's quality control. "The jury is still
out as far as issues of quality assurance," Rogers said, "and my office
is reluctant to extend overwhelming approval until the quality of technologically-delivered
education can be compared to traditional offerings." He added, however, that
the southern association would be happy to work with IRAC.
With so many unanswered questions and unsolved problems, the Western Governors
University faces an uncertain future. But many believe that WGU, whether it succeeds
or fails, has changed forever the higher education landscape. "Whatever happens,
WGU has advanced the discussion about non-traditional forms of higher education,
especially distance education, by ten years," said one close observer.
And most of those who have been struggling to bring the Western Governors University
to life remain optimistic.
"Sure, there are problems but they are not insurmountable," said Sally
Johnstone of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications. "All
the pieces are there. Now we have to make sure they all fit."
Pam Dixon, author of "Virtual College," lives in San Diego, California.