Overall student satisfaction of 96 percent. Average time to a bachelor’s degree of 2.5 years. Eighty-seven percent employment rate in field of degree. These are just a few of the impressive statistics you’ll find in Western Governors University’s annual report—and just a few of the reasons the online university is the higher education provider of choice of more than 90,000 students nationwide.
RewardExpert spoke with Bob Collins, WGU’s vice president of financial aid, about the nonprofit university’s history, competency-based education model, and new scholarship that is making online degree attainment even more affordable.
20 Years and 100,000 Graduates
Established in 1997 by 19 U.S. governors, Western Governors University was inspired by the mission to expand access to high-quality, affordable higher education by providing a way for individuals to learn independent of time or place.
“We just celebrated our 20th anniversary,” Collins said. “That’s a pretty remarkable milestone. While we had a slow start, because what we were doing was so different, once we started demonstrating that the competency-based education model offers a quality education that is actually more affordable, we gained traction. While we were the pioneers of competency-based education, I think there are probably 600 other colleges exploring it today.”
Since its founding, WGU has graduated more than 100,000 students in 50 different degree programs. Though the average WGU student is 37 years old, the student population ranges in age from 17 to 76. Forty percent of WGU’s attendees are first-generation college students. Twenty-four percent come from low-income families. Eleven percent are active military, veterans, or military family members. And 74 percent work full time while completing their education.
“Our students have families. They have jobs,” Collins added. “All of our classes are online so that they don’t have to quit those jobs to go back to school. Most come to us with prior college and prior work experience as well, so they are able to move through the program quickly based on their knowledge.”
Measuring Competency, Not Seat Time
What enables the average WGU student to earn his or her degree in only 2.5 years? Collins says the university’s competency-based education model (or CBE) is the key.
“CBE measures competencies,” he explained. “It measures what you know and what you can do, without measuring seat time.”
This means that students draw upon their prior experience and knowledge to move quickly through material in which they are already competent.
“Let’s say I’ve been running a small business and I keep the books and do the payroll,” Collins elaborated. “I can probably move pretty quickly through the accounting courses because I’ve been doing those things every day at work. My success isn’t based on time but on whether I’ve mastered the learning objectives of the course.”
The learning objectives for each course are reviewed and approved by WGU’s accrediting agency and are based on what employers need employees to know in order to competently fill jobs.
Continuous Enrollment and Affordable Tuition
Western Governors University students can choose from bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in the College of Business, Teachers College, College of Information Technology, or College of Health Professions.
Each term—or semester—is six months in length, and programs begin on the first day of each month.
“We have continuous enrollment,” Collins explained. “Students have the opportunity to start a term on the first day of any month. We bundle two six-month terms into an academic year.”
Tuition for each term is about $3,000. Students complete a minimum of 12 competency units per term and can add additional units at no further cost if they have time to do so.
“This subscription model motivates and provides an incentive for students to accelerate their time to degree completion,” Collins said. He also noted that tuition includes all of the electronic learning materials students need to complete their courses.
Scholarships and Financial Aid Available
This year, WGU decided to give out $200,000 in New Year, New You scholarships in addition to the other scholarship programs and financial aid packages regularly available to new students.
“We’ll give up to $2,000 per student for up to 100 students,” Collins said. “That $2,000 will be incremental: $500 per six-month term for four terms.”
To be eligible for the New Year, New You scholarship, students must complete an application for admission, scholarship application, and free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) by March 31, 2018.
The scholarship is competitive, and WGU will choose the recipients based on academic record, financial need, readiness for online study, current competency, and other considerations.
Collins added that earning a degree from WGU can generate pretty amazing results.
“While many of our students are employed when they come to us, they generally get promoted or are otherwise able to advance their careers as a result of the education they received at WGU, whether it was a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, or even a certification in IT. It’s all really valuable, and employers pay for that.”