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Former Colorado Governor Roy Romer spoke at the
Western Governors University graduation in January.
Romer and former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt were
instrumental in starting WGU.
in Salt Lake City, and she
couldn’t afford to spare
the hour it would have
taken to commute each
way. “I loved theWGU
program,” said Lambert,
who already had earned
an associate’s degree
Community College
before she enrolled at
WGU in September
2003. “It didn’t waste any
of my time like other
college classes have.”
And theWGU
degree paid off. Even
before she formally
graduated in January
with a bachelor’s degree
in interdisciplinary
studies, Lambert had
been offered—and had
started—a new job
teaching fourth grade.
WGU also serves
urban residents who
need the convenience of anytime, anyplace learning. “What
we’ve discovered is that access is just as much an issue for
working adults as rural residents,” saidMendenhall.
That was the case for Brian Taylor of Salt Lake City, who
graduated with a Bachelor of Science in business with an
emphasis in information technology management. “College
was a dream I had as long as I could remember,” said the
39-year-old Taylor. But after graduating from high school in
1985, Taylor had to go to work to help support his parents and
siblings, and he later had to continue working to support his
wife and daughter.
For years, Taylor worked in information technology
without a degree. But in the late ’90s he began to realize it
might be holding him back. “More and more, I was finding
clients who would say, ‘Well, do you have a degree?’” said
Taylor. “There was business that I was not able to do because I
didn’t have a degree.”
So he was thrilled to discover WGU. “I was looking for
something that would allowme to take the experience I
already had in the workplace and apply that street-smart
knowledge to my studies,” he said.
Now that he is armed with that college degree, said Taylor,
“I am confident that I can go into any business. And I have
the credential to say my services are worth X, and my clients
will have no qualms about paying for it, because they’ll know
they’re getting a quality service.”
Not every student is so wildly enthusiastic. One said that
while he was pleased that WGU is allowing him to finish
up his degree in marketing management both quickly and
efficiently, supports its competency-based model, and has
an excellent relationship with his mentor, he also has a litany
of complaints. His admissions counselor was “abysmal,” he
said, adding that he found some of WGU’s software systems
to be “unreasonably slow and poorly designed,” and that he
has been disturbed by an overall lack of attention to detail. “I
routinely find spelling and grammar errors in all manner of
communication fromWGU, including course materials, and
even in assessments,” e-mailed the student, who asked not to
be identified. “Is no one editing these documents?”
The same student also wrote, “They’ve really got something
to prove, which I would expect would push them to strive
for a high level of competence in everything they do. But
unfortunately, I don’t think they’ve risen sufficiently to those
challenges, and it leaves them open to a lot of criticism.”
WGU is well aware of this student’s concerns, which it has
taken seriously. So seriously, in fact, that Johnstone offered to
waive the student’s tuition in exchange for ongoing, regular
reports. Some of the student’s concerns have already been
addressed, Johnstone said, and probably would have been
even without the student’s input, though perhaps not as
quickly. “I consider him to be a really valuable resource to us,”
Johnstone said.
That willingness to engage in serious self-reflection is
one of the things about
WGU that impressed
Sandra Elman, who led
the accrediting team. It
is one of the reasons she
is so optimistic about the
school’s future. “It engages
as an institution in its
own self-examination as
to what it needs to do,”
Elman said.
“I think that it will
continue to offer quality
programs,” Elman
added. “Through its own
ongoing assessment of its
student base and societal needs—because it’s very conscious of
societal needs—it will shape and reshape its programs to best
meet the needs of students who partake in this kind of higher
And there are more and more of them. Because of that,
WGU officials said their next challenge is twofold: to find
qualified, good mentors; and to keep up with technological
advances. If they continue to do so, Mendenhall said,
there’s no practical limit to the number of students they can
eventually enroll. “I don’t think we have aspirations to grow
and grow and grow,” he explained. “But on the other hand, we
don’t have any caps in mind.”
Freelance writer KathyWitkowsky lives inMissoula, Montana.
The WGU faculty
don’t actually
teach. Instead,
their job is to
guide each of their
students through
a custom-made
academic process.