Online 'Govs' U' Still Finding Its Place
By Dan Luzadder, Special to Stateline
In 1997, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and then-Colorado Gov. Roy Romer and convinced leaders of 17 other western states join them in ponying up tax money for their virtual brainchild - Western Governors University - with predictions that tens of thousands would flock to the education of the future: competency-based university degrees, all online.
Tens of millions of dollars and nearly five years later, the early predictions look somewhat overrated: five graduates to date, some 500 students currently enrolled.
Critics point to the millions spent for those numbers, and to a student profile disproportionately drawn from middle-age teachers and business professionals, who are often seeking better pay or opportunity with a graduate degree.
But while WGU struggles with those perceptions, it is far from lost in cyberspace, insists University President Bob Mendenhall.
In fact, he says, WGU continues to weave a world-wide educational web of its own as a private university that no longer receives state funding. It is one that, some educators believe, has started an evolution' in how traditional universities will grant degrees in the brave new universe of the Internet.
"We offer education here that is tailor made," Mendenhall says. "Unlike traditional universities, we are customized. It's not one size fits all. Our job is to measure in terms of credentials what merits a degree."
So if graduation and enrollment rates don't tell the story, what does?
Mendenhall and other officials point to commitments for financial support and intellectual capital from 24 major corporate partners,' most of them from the realm of high tech.
Executives from those companies fill board seats alongside governors and academic experts. They include Microsoft (and the Gates Foundation, whose spokesman Tom VanderArk sits on the board) and other giants like Novell, Sun Microsystems, and major telecommunications players like AT&T.
Last year, WGU won a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to pursue ideas on how competency-based instruction can bring many more certified teachers into school systems across the states, before a creeping teacher shortage dramatically worsens.
Dr. Sam Smith, president emeritus of Washington State University and a member of national organizations involved in higher education policy, has been with WGU since its inception. He remembers an early meeting with Leavitt and Romer, to test their theories" of the online institution. They picked Smith because he was deeply involved in the "traditional" university environment.
"I thought I would listen politely, keep my hat in hand, thank them for their coffee, and that would be that," says Smith. "But I saw right away they had something here, a wonderful concept, and I signed on. I still believe in it."
While growth has been slow, Smith argues that WGU's mission competency-based degrees is having an impact on traditional higher education, even if only measured by some resistance to the idea.
"In Colorado and Utah, key states really, the traditional universities were saying, if they are starting this, what is it going to mean for us? For our budgets?," Smith said. "So when you have a new idea, put forth from an unexpected source like this, that seems to be gaining traction over time, you would expect the university community to question it. And it is a very conservative community."
What has happened, educators says, is that WGU has helped "bend the traditions" of higher education, causing universities to look more closely at credit for life and career experience in determining what a student's educational needs really are.
"The governors recognized that competency-based education was a coming trend," said Smith "They had been watching the Microsoft certification programs and the Novell certification programs, and people were flocking to them. They say that people could take a test, see what they knew, and see what they needed to supplement their knowledge to be certified in a particular field.
"So the governors said, let's try this competency-based education in a distance education environment I think the ideas together proved a potent wakeup call to higher education," Smith said. "Face it, the campus-based, four-year resident model, just doesn't work for everyone anymore."
That's why he and others think the concept will eventually root more deeply.
"If there is anything wrong with the idea," Smith said, "it's only that the governors were running about ten years ahead of their time."
Gov. Leavitt still pounds the pavement to promote WGU's potential contributions to technical and business education, and pushes for funding and full accreditation. But Romer, his fellow architect, has drifted away.
While the former Colorado governor remains on WGU's board, he "very seldom" attends board meetings, he says. "Frankly, I've lost track of what is going on at WGU. "I've simply been too busy here," Romer, now superintendent of Los Angeles Public Schools, told Stateline.org.
"Naturally we have some new people who were not governors when the school was started, and we have lost some strong supporters who have left public life. Among our new governors we've gotten some strong support, and some support that is not as strong as it was," Mendenhall says.
But he said overall, backing for the program is strong and growing, particularly from the corporate side.
The university board will release new enrollment and graduation numbers in an annual progress report later this month. Mendenhall declined to give a sneak preview of the figures, but described them as "good news."
He also noted that the grant from USDE to study competency-based online programs for teachers, may prompt a shift of resources from business and technology studies, toward new teacher education programs.
WGU is the only competency-based online university in the nation. It doesn't develop or teach its own courses, but assesses competency, designs an individual study plan, and assigns a Ph.D. to mentor each student. Courses come from online offering by other universities -- from Harvard to USC. After completing coursework, students must pass rigorous exams to qualify for their degree.
Tuition for is about $4,500 for the complete program at WGU. Students, on average, pay another $4,000 in course fees from host universities, putting the cost of a degree at under $9,000.
The system gives WGU a world-wide campus says university spokesman John Becker, including one student who commutes via Internet "from a weather station at the North Pole."
"WGU has moved the competency model to affect those who have learned a lot in their careers, and can qualify for a higher degree," Smith said. "It works. And the numbers will grow. We're accomplishing what we wanted to accomplish."
Dan Luzadder is a Colorado writer.