Higher Education

OPINION: After federal ​audit demands $712M repayment, Western Governors University president defends innovative approach

An argument in favor of competency-based education

Editor’s note: The Education Department’s inspector general on Sept. 22 recommended that the department seek the return of more than $700 million in federal financial aid from Western Governors University, citing concerns about the role of faculty at the large online university. The inspector general also said the school should be ineligible to receive any more federal aid payments. A response from Western Governors’ president follows.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has wisely noted that to innovate, you have to be willing to be misunderstood, often for long periods of time.

The release of the Office of Inspector General’s audit report is a strong reminder of just how true that is.

Western Governors University, a nonprofit university founded by bipartisan governors from 19 Western states, has been delivering high-quality, affordable education for 20 years using an innovative learning model, but it’s clear that we are still being misunderstood by the inspector general’s office.

Related: How should online teacher programs be judged?

The inspector general’s position reflects a narrow application of law and regulatory guidance and reflects antiquated ideas of how higher education should work and how college students should learn. Western Governors University’s model, competency-based education delivered online, is not consistent with the myopia of the inspector general’s office. All focus and effort is centered on the student.

Western Governors University students study and learn on their schedules, moving through coursework at a pace that allows them to move quickly through what they’ve already learned, while spending time they need on new learning – with regular, substantive and individualized one-on-one engagement with faculty.

Students enroll in programs, not individual courses; tuition, about $6,000 per year, is charged at a flat rate, regardless of the number of credits earned.

One of our hallmarks is our faculty model. To meet the needs of our students – more than 97 percent of whom have some prior college but no degree – we realized the conventional singular faculty role wouldn’t work. Our faculty model is very different — roles are specialized.

One group of faculty serves students with regular instruction, guidance and mentoring during the duration of their program; another provides instruction and personalized coaching in specific courses, and another evaluates student assignments and exams and provides valuable feedback. So, while the inspector general’s office narrowly looks for a student’s regular and substantive interaction with a single faculty in a course, Western Governors students enjoy a high level of individualized engagement at both the course and program level.

While the inspector general’s office misunderstands us, Western Governors University students and graduates, as well as employers in every state, do not.

Our more than 84,000 students are older, are working, have families and are striving to change their lives by advancing their education.

Our more than 93,000 graduates are working and contributing in all 50 states as teachers, nurses, business leaders, technology and cybersecurity experts, and in many other professions.

What’s more difficult to misunderstand or ignore is our student outcomes.

With regard to regular and substantive faculty interaction, on the National Survey of Student Engagement, our students rated the quality of their interactions with faculty 12 percentage points higher than the national average.

Related: As universities compete for dwindling state funds, performance matters

In surveys by Gallup and Harris, Western Governors graduates report higher-than-national-average levels of satisfaction with their academic experience. In addition, they are achieving their goals — 87 percent are employed in their field within two years of graduation. And, they borrow less (half the national average).

Over the past few days, I have been asked repeatedly, “What’s next?” or “What are you going to do?” My answer is the same as it was a week ago: Western Governors is focused on our students and their success. We’ll continue to innovate to improve the student experience and achieve even better outcomes.

The audit report may create a little turbulence, but we will fly right through it. It won’t change what we do. All of us at Western Governors University are willing to be misunderstood because we know that innovation wins.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, the nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Scott Pulsipher is the president of Western Governors University.

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Scott Pulsipher

Scott Pulsipher is the president of Western Governors University. See Archive

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