“If I had had to be in a classroom every Tuesday night at 6 p.m., I never would have made it,” she says. “I really felt like I needed something that would allow me the flexibility.”
Western Governors University is one of nearly three dozen colleges and programs—nonprofit and for-profit alike—that are trying a fledgling model of schooling known as competency-based education. Its core idea: Students fare better if they earn degrees based on their demonstrated knowledge of a subject instead of simply on face-time or performance in a traditional classroom.
“It basically means that we will measure learning rather than time,” says Robert W. Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University. “Competency-based learning means students can learn at their own pace.”
Western Governors University was one of the pioneers. In the mid-1990s, a number of governors from Western states wanted to give residents better and cheaper access to higher education, which can be daunting in rural or less-populated areas. The governors wanted to take advantage of technology to create an institution of higher education that lets students advance based on knowledge and ability, one that uses technology to deliver this education in innovative ways. Growing numbers of residents who hold college degrees, they hoped, would attract businesses.
The university opened its electronic doors in 1999 and now teaches 60,000 students nationwide in all 50 states; another 50,000 have graduated. The rates of completion are one area in which university officials would like to improve. According to WGU, roughly 40 percent of its students complete their degree within six years. That’s only two-thirds as many as for students at four-year institutions, according to federal Education Department data.
These schools face a demographic challenge: Most of the people who enroll are nontraditional students, like Thomas, who must also juggle the demands of work and family. Two-thirds of WGU students work full-time; their average age is 37. Almost all of them went to college earlier but dropped out. Many are underserved students, Mendenhall notes—from minority groups, rural areas, poor households, or families new to college—who face obstacles in earning a degree. “We keep making changes in the model and curriculum to make students more successful,” he says.
One of WGU’s tactics is to assign each student a mentor, who checks in every week or two by phone or email and advises which classes to take. Each course also offers a mentor for struggling students, in addition to the faculty members who grade papers and tests. And, students learn online through a variety of methods: webinars, multimedia presentations, video lectures, and readings, with professors available for questions online and by email. Students take tests either in proctored testing centers or online, with some tests monitored by webcam.