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new college of health
professions, its fourth
degree area. Student
surveys have been
positive. And
Mendenhall has
been appointed to
the U.S. Secretary
of Education’s
Commission on the
Future of Higher
WGU’s 5,200
students constitute
just a tiny percentage
of the estimated 1.2
million students
enrolled nationally in online programs. But the numbers are
only part of the story, saidMendenhall, who came toWGU in
1999 with a background in technology-based education. (He
co-founded and was president and CEO of a computer-based
education and training company, and he later ran IBM’s K­­–12
education division.) “Demonstrating a different model is more
important than our size or enrollment growth,” Mendenhall
“We’ll always have a lot of people who have never heard
of us,” said Douglas “Chip” Johnstone, WGU provost and
academic vice president, who also arrived at WGU in 1999,
after 18 years at Empire State College, a distance-learning
institution that is part of the State University of New York. But
already, said Johnstone, “We have changed the nature of the
discussion and the nature of the results.”
“I think it’s a model that many of us will have to learn from
as student outcomes become more critical,” saidWICHE’s
Longanecker. “They aren’t
model. But they are
Margaret Miller, director of the Center for the Study of
Higher Education at the University of Virginia, was more
circumspect. “I would say the jury’s still out. But I’m very glad
someone’s trying to do this,” she said. “There is no challenge
more important than howwe get more people better educated
in the world.” Combining online learning with competency-
based assessments, she said, seems to be the most promising
strategy. “If they have found a way to do this, then we all owe
them a huge debt.”
They have, and we do, according to Sandra Elman,
president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and
“A lot of people wanted to be very cynical about this
institution,” said Elman, who chaired the Interregional
Accrediting Council that was formed specifically to accredit
WGU. (The council, which brought together four of the
nation’s regional accrediting associations, disbanded after
awardingWGU accreditation in 2003; the Northwest
Commission has since taken over sole accrediting
responsibility for the institution.)
Elman was not one of the cynics. But, she said, “I was very,
very cautious and very conscious of the fact that anything
that we did with a fairly experimental, innovative university
should not in any way compromise the integrity or principles
of regional accreditation.” And she was concerned that the
governors might tire of the long and arduous accreditation
process. According to board chairman Geringer, Elman’s
concern was justified. “There were a few of us who just hung
on by our fingernails,” he said.
To its credit, Elman said, the leadership of WGU stayed
the course. And today, she considers WGU “a success story,”
that “is affording access to quality programs through its
competency-based virtual delivery programs.”
Each of those programs has been designed by one of
three “program councils”—one for each degree areaWGU
offers—of industry experts and faculty fromWGU and other
institutions. They identify the skills and knowledge a student
needs in order to graduate. Then a separate council of outside
experts (the “assessment council”) identifies or develops ways
to check those competencies, which are graded, either by
computer or hired graders, on a pass/fail basis.
Exams are administered at authorized testing centers.
In order to pass, students must achieve the equivalent of a
B grade or better; where possible, WGU also uses accepted
standardized national exams. Students can attempt each
assessment twice before incurring additional tuition charges.
WGU does not develop its own courses or materials, but
instead licenses them from about 30 sources. These include
courses from traditional educational institutions such as
Chadron State College in Chadron, Nebraska, and Chemeketa
Community College in Salem, Oregon; online learning
modules produced by for-profit educational providers such as
Teachscape; and corporate training in information technology
fromNETg. Students may also learn from textbooks or
other independent
study materials; WGU
contracts with the
University of New
Mexico for the use of its
library services.
It is the job of the
WGU faculty to help
students figure out
which of these resources
meet their individual
needs. These so-called
“faculty mentors” are
academically qualified
experts, most of whom
hold a terminal degree in
their field. But they don’t
actually teach. Instead,
their job is to guide each
of their students—80 is
considered a full load—
through a custom-made
academic process.
The average age of a
WGU student is 37, and
70 percent work full-
time, often in their fields
of study. Most programs
A January graduate of Western Governors University,
47-year-old Angie Lambert says WGU “didn’t waste any
of my time like other college classes have.”
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.