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do not require a minimum grade point
average or a specific score on aptitude
tests for admission, but the majority of
students come to their programs with
at least some proficiency in their degree
area. WGU recognizes that their skills
often have outpaced their educational
“We fill a hole that they don’t have the
knowledge in, and we let them succeed
and fly in the areas that they have already
mastered,” explained Jennifer Smolka of Waxahachie, Texas, a
WGUmentor since 2004 who is also the program coordinator
for the master’s degree in education.
WGU administrators say that the system is not only more
efficient, it is also more economical. Students can matriculate
at the beginning of any month; they pay a flat fee of just under
$2,790 every six months, during which time they can progress
as rapidly as they are able to pass assessments. (WGUwill
accept some transfer credits but none from upper-division
courses.)Theoretically, it is possible to earn a degree from
WGUwithout ever taking a single course or learning module
through the school—with the exception of the required
introduction, “EducationWithout Boundaries.”That has never
happened, but some students have graduated in as little as six
“One of the great things we can demonstrate is [higher
education] doesn’t have to cost $15,000 a year, and it doesn’t
have to go up by eight percent a year,” saidWGU President
Mendenhall. The school would not release its current annual
budget, but officials said that total revenues for the last fiscal
year were $19.3 million. This year, 85 to 90 percent of revenues
will come from student tuition, which covers the entire cost of
aWGU education; corporate donations and grants—which
total about $40 million to date—are used to develop new
WGU can keep its costs down because it doesn’t have to
build or maintain a physical campus or support athletic and
other expensive activities that students at bricks-and-mortar
institutions have come to expect. Nor does it have to pay its
faculty to develop new courses, conduct research or grade
students’ work. That frees up the school’s mentors to focus
exclusively on their students. There are currently about 100
mentors; three to eight new ones are hired each month to keep
up with enrollment growth.
Mentors are key to theWGUmodel, because they are
more than just academic advisers. “We are a counselor, a tutor,
a guide,” Smolka said. “We are the shoulder to lean on and
the hand to pull you up out of the hole and to push you when
you’re going. It’s a little bit of everything.”
WGU’s administrative and technical staff, which
now numbers about 150, works out of the Salt Lake
City headquarters, but likeWGU students, mentors are
spread across the country. So it is rare that Smolka has the
Western Governors University
July 2008
n January 1998, Western Governors University was completing
its initial planning phase, and was preparing to begin a “pilot” period,
National CrossTalk
published the first of two articles about the
fledgling university. The champions of WGU promised that “distance
education” methods emphasizing computer and television instruction
would provide a new and less expensive alternative to traditional
The big predictions that were offered riskedmaking a more modest
success look like a failure, and that is arguably what happened.
At the beginning, there were concerns that political realities were
creating pressure for a “fast start.” Some planners feared that WGU
was making a mistake by promising more than it could deliver, at least
Distance education was a relatively new phenomenon, andWGUwas
acknowledged as a trailblazer. Still, the university’s pilot program in 1998
was very small. There were 200 students, only one faculty “mentor,” and a
lot of questions. One of the doubters who was quoted in the 1998 article
said, “The hype is out in front of the infrastructure. There is a substantial
disconnect between the PR about WGU and what is actually there.”
By 2006, when
National CrossTalk
reported onWGU again, the
university had grown to an enrollment of 5,200 students from all 50
states and ten foreign countries, and had gained accreditation. Its novel
“competency-based” approach to awarding degrees, although one that
did not spread to other institutions, continued to offer a challenging
alternative to traditional credit-hour programs.
But at the same time, other online education programs became
commonplace, surpassingWGU in their size and impact.
In a 2008 interview, WGU President Robert Mendenhall said the
perception that the university has failed tomeet expectations is based
on a misunderstanding of how the institution developed. “When
the governors started this, the viewwas that this could be the online
university that all the states would utilize—that all the states would
deliver their online courses thoughWGU,” he said. “If you count up all
the students in the western states, that would be tens of thousands, but
that never happened. It never even started to happen.” Instead, according
toMendenhall, “the model fundamentally changed.”
“I think there are a number of ways tomeasure impact,” Mendenhall
added. “One of our clear missions was to establish a newmodel for
higher education—in essence, one that measures learning as opposed
to time, measuring what students know, and graduating thembased on
that, rather than on the number of credit hours they have accumulated.”
In 2008, WGU’s
enrollment reached 10,000,
and is projected to increase to
15,000 by 2011. Mendenhall
pointed out that these figures
are two years ahead of the
projections offered in the
2006 article. “It’s a little faster
than we had anticipated,”
he said. WGU has awarded
more than 700 degrees,
and there are nowmore
than 3,000 graduates of the
The big predictions that
were offered for Western
Governors University
risked making a more
modest success look
like a failure, and that is
arguably what happened.
WGU does not develop
its own courses or
materials, but instead
licenses them from
about 30 sources.