In numbers: what is the difference between this fully online university and a traditional university?

(This is the first of two stories about the ongoing impact of the fully online Western Governors University, a Salt Lake City-based, nonprofit, degree-granting institution.)

The theme adopted by Western Governors University entirely online to achieve its silver anniversary this year is “25 years of breaking tradition.” Indeed, WGU has shelved the four-year model, particularly over the past decade.

Students who attend and not only graduate in half the time, but they also tend to see higher incomes after six years, take on less debt and be happier, according to several measures taken by the partner of long standing Gallup. This data combined with its strong academic reputation has enabled WGU to attract more students than ever before. Currently, 200,000 are enrolled in its career-focused programs, while its alumni have topped 300,000. Five years ago, its graduates over two decades totaled less than 100,000.

Embedded in its basic philosophy, it is to reach each of these students, and in particular not to reject any of them. It’s a totally different approach – taken also by Purdue Global, ASU Online and Southern New Hampshire – that mainstream institutions have been willing to take, especially the elites.

“The ability to think differently really means you put the individual student at the center of everything you do in higher education,” WGU President Scott Pulsipher said in the recent WGU announcement. 25 from Gallup.e Anniversary Impact Report. “One of the simple notions is to dispel this idea that somehow selectivity or exclusivity or who you admit is more important than how you expand access to every human, that you can recognize that even when you have 300,000, and keep adding 50,000 more that, that all of their lives change. Opportunity expands when more people participate. We should in no way limit those who can actually access these pathways to help them change their lives for the better.

This message was echoed by Brandon Busteed, the president of Kaplan University Partners, during a panel discussion recently at WGU with Gallup. He said fully online institutions like WGU are changing the perceptions of students and families doing research. Even traditionally younger students are swayed because of their speed to graduation and flexibility. But it’s also because their model is truly inclusive, a one-for-all approach that goes against prestige and selectivity.

“These are incredibly student-centric institutions that listen to employers and the market,” Busteed said. “And that’s the opposite of most R1 and elite universities, which are mostly faculty-centric and try to pilot with government research. There are other components that are really important. Growth is part of the mission of these institutions. They want to grow. And they see growth as an improvement in quality, not a decline. This is the opposite of most elite institutions and residential institutions. They might want to grow on the sidelines, 50 more students here, but that’s not inherently part of their mission. They think growth depreciates or diminishes quality. And the irony is that you see the opposite with these other models.

More UB: Opinion: The university campus of the future will be hybrid

Transforming Higher Education

It’s not just online lines that are transforming higher education. Many institutions, recognizing a potential contraction or drop in enrollment on the horizon, are changing the way they operate. Some are reorganizing university structures and departments, such as Kean University in New Jersey and the University of Hawaii. Many are developing shorter paths to degrees and increasing certificate offerings. Most continue to adopt flexible learning modalities. And a few are taking the bold step of cutting tuition.

“I’m encouraged that some of the public institutions are actually finding the innovation that existed in a for-profit sector that was persona non grata in higher education,” Pulsipher said. “We have every reason why. But there’s something about just saying we have to disrupt this age-old convention that’s there. If we can shift our mindset from rankings, selectivity, and search just to how we dramatically expand our ability to empower individuals, the better off we’ll all be.

The biggest hurdle is cost. Busteed says consumers are more demanding about putting their money in the right institution.

“The big challenge we have is that the cost of higher education continues to spin out of control,” he said. “That’s a big reason why we have so many ‘is it worth it?’ Tuition fees have risen over 400% since the early 1980s That’s double what health care has risen We need to get to where we work to reduce the cost of education higher education, not keeping it flat, or the 3.5% annual increase. People are incredibly sensitive to ROI now. I think we’re looking at a generation of ROI, even among students of traditional age and parents of traditional age students.”

To say that WGU and its online colleagues have had an impact on higher education would be an understatement. WGU will admit it can improve its first-year full-time student graduation rates (although its huge transfer numbers are pushing completion higher), but that’s been disruptive, especially now in an unstable economic environment and where many students have already experienced a dose of online learning during the pandemic.

The impact of WGU, in numbers

$15,000: The difference in salary value after six years for students attending WGU compared to all other bachelor’s degree-granting colleges and universities, thanks to its bias toward in-demand fields. Master’s degree holders are also ahead of their rivals by $8,000.

81%: The percentage of students with a bachelor’s degree from WGU who do so in less than four years. More than a third of them do so in less than two years. It takes the average WGU graduate 2.4 years to complete. It takes 5.4 years for others in traditional institutions.

$11,222: The net cost of participating in WGU. The average cost over four years is $23,000, although many public institutions can be just as competitive. The average debt for a WGU student is $8,700, compared to $12,000 for others.

42,698: Degrees awarded in 2020 alone at WGU (with over 24,000 bachelor’s degrees).

35: Average age of a student starting at WGU, about 12 years older than the average for a traditional four-year institution

seven%: The paltry percentage of students at WGU in the under-25 category from 2003 to 2019, more than 50% lower than their traditional rivals.

57%: The percentage of WGU students who are married. It also outpaces its online rivals by almost 20%.

47%: The percentage of WGU students who are first-generation, far exceeding the 35% of first-generation students at other institutions

22%: Where WGU is behind the curve is in the number of students of color. Nationally, the number for the other four years is 29%, while for the other fully online years it is 36%.

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