Model of the future? The Resounding Success of a Fully Online University |


As others collapsed during the pandemic, Western governors increased registrations and continued to innovate.

Photo courtesy of Western Governors University

A month ago, Western Governors University in Utah celebrated a great milestone: its 250,000e graduate, who came out of homelessness to graduate and launch a career in human resources.

Dr Marni Baker Stein

Achievements like these are not unusual at WGU, a fully online institution established in 1997 and highly regarded for its personalized educational model, flexible curriculum, and ability to reach those who might otherwise miss out on post-secondary education.

“Between 65 and 70% of our students are classified in one or more categories of underserved learners. These are the students we are designed to serve, ”says Dr Marni Baker Stein, Rector and Director of Studies at WGU. “The vast majority of these students work full time while they are in school. They are the guardians of their families, low income students, students of color.

WGU’s appeal as being affordable, accessible, and powerful at connecting learning to career paths struck a chord with students. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as most establishments struggled to meet enrollment targets, WGU increased its base by 7%. Its transfer numbers were even better at plus-18% in fall 2020 and plus-14% in spring 2021, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

As students seek faster routes to certificates and completion – and the job market embraces it – the once negative stigma around online-only institutions has eroded. Arizona State University’s ASU Online, Southern New Hampshire, and the WGU have proven to be powerhouses in a crowded higher education field where survival is a struggle. “The reason we keep growing is because we’re designed to provide working learners with high-impact, high-value diplomas and degrees that boost their social and economic mobility no matter where they live,” says Baker Stein. “This value proposition and commitment to student experience and achievement is the reason we always have populations of learners coming to us. “

Constantly evolving

What makes WGU so unique is that it offers ever-changing classroom experiences across its four colleges: IT, Business, Health, and Teachers College. Over the past year, Baker Stein said WGU has made 200 revisions to the programs based on their relevance and meeting demand in the workplace.

“We understand the market value of these skills and titles at a very specific level,” she says. “We are evolving these programs, we are reviewing these programs, sunset programs and launching new programs that are better aligned with that demand and that relevance. We can also be nimble because we are a higher education institution. Our program is not a series of discrete lessons owned by individual teachers. It’s a total designed experience. This allows us to respond in a very agile way to the demand of the employer market. “

Among its many initiatives serving its 129,000 full-time students, WGU has a pilot learning project called the Achievement Wallet Project that “brings up” personal career opportunities just in time to help them progress through programs leading to to a degree while working on their career, as well as doubling the number of short credentials without a degree. This is crucial, because 84% of its student population is already working.

“In our computer science degrees, we’ve always incorporated between 5 and 13 stackable third-party certifications,” she says. “As you graduate in computer science or cybersecurity, you get some highly sought-after professional certifications. We have seen how essential this is for students and their behavior. Some of them get one of these certifications and want to get promoted or get that next certification.

The large group of students served by Western Governors University

The appeal of the web

If ever a case could be presented only online, it happened during the pandemic. WGU faced challenges but sailed well, both in terms of course delivery and student support, while mainstream schools struggled to find physical spaces on campus, mitigation strategies high costs and distance learning.

“I can’t imagine how some of the traditional institutions I have great respect for handled this on time, as they don’t have a digital campus,” says Baker Stein, who previously worked at the University. of Texas, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and UC-Santa Barbara. “They don’t have a student lifecycle infrastructure that’s online and online access to their support services. I hope they have learned some great lessons about the need for digital infrastructure for the future of higher education, whether online or not. The transformation is long overdue.

But it will not be easy, especially when it comes to giving lessons, although many try. “It would be difficult to be so nimble with the curriculum because there isn’t a centralized group that reviews the design of an entire curriculum. You make it evolve one course at a time, ”she says. “This is a critical point of differentiation about WGU. It’s very appealing to students because they know that as they progress through a program they are learning skills. With each success, they gain added value.

Due to the demand, Baker Stein says the change has to happen.

“It’s not just an opportunity to put models and practices in place online,” she says. “This is an opportunity for the digital transformation of education. We should reconsider every aspect of our design, and not just digitize what we do today in mainstream education. There are some amazing things you can do with learning resources in the digital space from an educational perspective. Let’s go beyond lectures and classroom activities and head into the future of a digital experience that can be incredibly powerful for students, especially for students who are stuck in places and life situations where they don’t have the windows that maybe some of our young undergraduates going to research universities I have.

Baker Stein says institutions should consider three questions when considering more online options:

  • “How to rethink the student care community in the digital space?
  • How to rethink what a mentor or a counselor is, what a trainer is, what a service center is?
  • How do we rethink our business model and the structure of this critical student-oriented team so that we can be more flexible, more scalable and more powerful in terms of supporting students with services. This is something that is rarely taken into account by traditional organizations when going online. But yet, it is such an opportunity to rethink this new modality.


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