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opportunity to meet her charges in person. Still, she said,
they develop close relationships through regular e-mails and
phone conversations. “Instead of getting a new professor every
16 weeks, you have somebody who’s there throughout the
whole programwith you,” said Smolka, who has a Ph.D. in
educational computing with an emphasis in distance learning,
and formerly taught at the University of North Texas. “I
know and have a better relationship with my students in this
model than I have had in ten years of other higher education
experience.”
Beyond the personal satisfaction of helping students gain
an education, there are monetary incentives. WGU does not
offer tenure, andWGU officials declined to provide salary
figures or even a range of salaries. But compensation—not
only for mentors but also for all employees, including senior
administrators—is based primarily on the success of the
school’s students: their progress, retention, satisfaction and
graduation rate.
So far, WGU appears to be doing well in all of these areas.
The school has not been offering bachelor’s degrees long
enough to be able to calculate a six-year graduation rate, but
the one-year retention rate is more than 70 percent. Compared
to their peers, WGU students do well on national standardized
exams, school officials say. For instance, WGU students
graduating with a bachelor’s degree in human resources
management have a 91 percent pass rate on the Society for
Human Resources Management certification exam, compared
to a national pass rate of 67
percent.
In a 2005 survey of 1,771
students, 92.5 percent said
that overall they were satisfied
with their studies at WGU.
About 85 percent of the 693
degrees WGU has granted were
conferred within the past two
years, so the school has not yet
conducted a longitudinal study of
its graduates, though it plans to
launch one within the next year.
But a preliminary follow-up study
of two groups of 32 graduates
found that 80 percent said they
had been promoted within two
years after earning their degree.
“Overwhelmingly, they expressed
great satisfaction with the degree
and what it had done for their
careers,” saidWGU Provost
Johnstone.
That was certainly true of the students who attended the
graduation commencement in January, WGU’s tenth.
Angie Lambert of Evanston, Wyoming, enrolled at WGU’s
teachers college because the closest four-year institution was
“We graduated 2,300
students in the last two
years,” Mendenhall said.
“We had 5,200 students
two years ago, somore than
half of those students have
graduated already, and those
numbers will get bigger
every year.”
In late 2006, WGU
won accreditation from
the National Council for
Accreditation of Teacher
Education, making it the
only online teachers college
to be accredited by the
organization. The teachers
college accounts for nearly
two-thirds of WGU’s enrollment.
There are now 36 degree programs, plus several post-baccalaureate
programs at WGU. “We have introduced new degrees in the health
college,” Mendenhall said, referring to the College of Health Professions,
which the university launched in fall 2006. “There is anM.B.A. in
healthcare management, anMS in health education, twomaster’s degrees
in nursing, and a bachelor’s in nursing for existing RNs.”The university
also has new programs in special education and educational leadership.
But WGU is no longer at the forefront of distance education.
“Everyone’s doing it now,” Mendenhall said. “Most of it isn’t very good.
Most of it is just putting the classroomon the computer, a mode of
distribution,” he said, adding that WGU has a different emphasis.
“We are at the vanguard of the national focus on affordability
and accessibility,” he said. “Over 75 percent of WGU students are
underserved, coming fromone of four categories: low income, minority,
rural, or first-generation (college student). In the key parameters in the
national debate on access, affordability and accountability, WGU is a
leading example of how a newmodel can address those concerns.”
Tuition at WGU increased by $100 in September 2008, to $2,890 per
six-month term. “It is the first increase in three years,” Mendenhall said.
“We are quite focused on delivering higher education cost-effectively and
without double-digit tuition increases.”
When Congress reauthorized the Higher Education Act in 2007,
distance education was made eligible for full financial aid. “That’s a huge
national impact,” Mendenhall said. “We can’t take all the credit for it,
because online ed has grown significantly in the last ten years. But we
were one of the earlier ones, and instrumental in getting financial aid for
distance education.”
Congress has alsomade competency programs eligible for financial
aid. “In essence, they said that programs that utilize direct assessment
of learning, in lieu of clock hours or credit hours, are eligible for federal
financial aid,” Mendenhall said.
The competency-based approach is in step with a larger national
emphasis on outcomes in education, but Mendenhall is hard-pressed to
cite examples of such programs elsewhere in higher education. “This has
made it much easier for other institutions to adopt this type of model, but
we cannot point to another institution that does it that way,” he said.
“That’s the reason we started as a new institution,” Mendenhall added.
“It’s very difficult to start a higher education institution. But that’s easier
than changing one.”
—Todd Sallo
In 2008, enrollment at
WGU reached 10,000,
and is projected to
increase to 15,000
by 2011. There are
now 36 degree
programs, plus several
post-baccalaureate
programs.
Amanda Clark and her daughter Aubrey came
from a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, to attend the
January graduation ceremony in Salt Lake City.