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awarded an honorary doctoral degree from the institution
he helped to conceive. “It is really fun to have an idea that
works,” Romer said in his commencement address. It wasn’t
always clear that this one would. Said Romer, who is now
superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District,
“This has been a steep hill, sometimes a rocky road.”
In part, that was because of the western governors
themselves, who had created enormous expectations for the
institution, said David Longanecker, executive director of
theWestern Interstate Commission for Higher Education
(WICHE). “Governors are people who think big and talk big,”
Longanecker said. “So the hype was going to be big.”
“There was a lot of hype about it,” agreed Peter Ewell,
vice president of the National Center for Higher Education
Management Systems. Ewell was instrumental in designing
WGU’s first curriculum, and he serves on the university’s
assessment committee, which is meant to ensure the integrity
of the testing process. “It became a
huge political symbol of a threat to
higher education.”
That was never the intention,
according to Romer. “The objective
was not to change higher education
but to expand the outreach,” he said.
“We saw it as filling in the gaps
more than anything,” said former
Wyoming Governor JimGeringer,
now chairman of WGU’s board
of trustees. “But other higher
education institutions saw it as direct
competition for dollars,” he said. “If
we didn’t intend to shake up higher
ed, we did anyways.”
That became painfully clear when Geringer met with the
provost and faculty senate at the University of Wyoming to
explain the concept of WGU. “They were very defensive and
even disparaging about it,” Geringer said. “We didn’t view it as
a diversion of existing funds from higher education, but they
certainly did. They saw it as a poke in the eye with a sharp
stick.”
Even people who liked the concept were skeptical. “I
thought it was an interesting and novel and bold approach,
so I was hopeful that it would work. But frankly, I wasn’t
optimistic,” Longanecker said.
To some extent, Longanecker’s skepticism proved justified.
Predictions that tens of thousands of students would rush
to enroll turned out to be off by a long shot; for the first
four years, enrollment remained in the hundreds. An idea
that WGUwould generate money by acting as a broker,
maintaining a vast catalog of distance courses offered by
institutions throughout the west, quickly proved unrealistic.
And it took far longer than the governors anticipated for the
school to gain accreditation and secure additional funding to
come up with programs that would attract more students.
One major turning point came in 2001, when the school
was awarded a $10 million, five-year U.S. Department of
Education grant to develop a teachers college, which opened
two years later and now accounts for two-thirds of enrollment.
Another came in 2003, whenWGU, which was already
accredited by the Distance Education Training Council, was
awarded regional accreditation. “We had no concept for
howmuch it took to get something like this off the ground,”
admitted Geringer.
In the intervening years, WGU largely fell off the
educational radar screen. In fact, said Longanecker, “I think a
lot of people presume that it failed.”
They are wrong.
It is true that WGU has not lived up to its early hype.
“You don’t hear people talking about it anymore. Whereas,
when it first started, that was all people talked about,” said
Carol Twigg, president and CEO of the National Center for
Academic Transformation, a nonprofit organization that
focuses on the use of technology to improve student outcomes
and reduce educational costs. WGUmay be doing a fine job
for the small population it serves, Twigg said, but because it
has remained so small in the face of an explosion in online and
adult learning, she added, “I don’t think it’s having much of an
impact on the landscape of higher education.”
What WGU has done, said Longanecker, is provide
evidence in favor of competency-based education. “I don’t
think it’s the wave of the future, but I do think it provides
a way we can say: You can do this. You can focus on
competency,” he said.
“It didn’t fulfill all of the dreams we had,” Peter Ewell
acknowledged. “But it’s in pretty solid shape now. I’m just
sorry that it took so long.”
Since receiving regional accreditation three years ago,
WGU’s enrollment has skyrocketed, growing more than
tenfold to 5,200 students from all 50 states and ten foreign
countries. And enrollment is projected to double to 10,000
within the next two to four years, increasing to 15,000 by 2013,
saidWGU President Robert Mendenhall.
The school has awarded nearly 700 associate’s, bachelor’s
and master’s degrees, and it has expanded its initial offering
of four degree programs to 29 degree programs in education,
information technology and business, as well as seven post-
baccalaureate programs for educators. This fall, it will open a
Western Governors University Provost and Academic Vice President Douglas “Chip”
Johnstone came to WGU after 18 years at Empire State, the distance learning arm
of the State University of New York.
Instead of earning
credits based on the
number of courses
they take, students
progress by successfully
completing required
competency assessments
related to their degrees.