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VOL. 41 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 24, 2017

Haslam backs WGU despite critical audit

Feds: Online college lacks faculty, should repay $700M in financial aid funds

By Kathy Carlson

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On any day, hundreds and possibly thousands of Tennessee students go to college online, whenever and however they want, courtesy of Western Governors University Tennessee.

In interviews and in online statements, many students swear by WGU Tennessee’s combination of structured degree programs designed around workplace needs, online courses that award pass-fail credits once a student has mastered the topic and a mentor system that includes subject-matter experts and others who guide them toward graduating. More than 3,600 students across the state are enrolled, and some 2,200 have graduated. WGU is nonprofit, and its programs are accredited.

But not everyone is a believer.

Federal auditors this fall urged the U.S. Department of Education to disqualify WGU from participating in federal financial aid programs that are essential to many of its students and to require the school to pay back more than $700 million in federal financial aid funds. It remains to be seen what the Education Department will do.

‘No impact’

“We anticipate no impact on faculty, students or their education” from the audit,” says Dr. Kimberly Estep, WGU Tennessee’s chancellor.

Estep

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has embraced WGU’s educational model as a key tool in boosting educational attainment in the state and remains a strong supporter.

At stake are not only federal financial aid dollars but, some say, future innovation in higher education.

Tennessee’s formal history with WGU goes back four years.

“In 2013, the Governor launched the Drive to 55 in an effort to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with a postsecondary credential to 55 percent by 2025 to meet workforce demand,” Jennifer Donnals, the governor’s press secretary, responded in an email.

“The Drive to 55 includes a suite of strategies that we have continued to build upon each year of the Governor’s administration.

“One of those strategies was developing a state partnership with Western Governors University to serve the nearly one million adults in Tennessee with some college but no degree. WGU is unique in its ability to provide a completely online, competency-based model which allows adults to finish their degree sooner as they receive credit for demonstrating skills as opposed to sitting in a seat.

Governor Bill Haslam speaks at WGU Tennessee’s graduation ceremony held at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in August.

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“As far as the Inspector General’s report is concerned, our office has been in communication with WGU Tennessee about it and are not concerned about WGU’s compliance with the law or regulations governing higher education,” she continued.

“Our understanding is that USED (the U.S. Department of Education) had questions about WGU’s faculty model, which is structured in a way that effectively meets the online and personalized nature of its WGU’s degree programs.

“We are confident the issue will be resolved, and WGU will continue to serve Tennesseans as it has been.”

A ‘chilling effect’

“This report could have an unintended chilling effect on innovation in higher-education for institutions who see the report and possibly overreact to the report because they don’t completely understand the report and what it does,’’ says Jeffrey C. Sun, chair of the University of Louisville’s Department of Educational Leadership, Evaluation and Organizational Development.

Competency-based education, provided by WGU and a host of other institutions, is one such innovation.

The Competency-Based Education Network, a professional organization of CBE providers, states “CBE focuses on what students must know and be able to do to earn degrees and other credentials.”

Students learn at their own pace and earn academic credit as they show they have gained required knowledge and skills, regardless of time spent on a course. C-BEN says on its web site that some 200 institutions across the country – including public, private, nonprofit and for-profit – either offer or are contemplating offering CBE.

If others besides WGU offer CBE, students continue to praise it and policy makers see it as a way to expand higher education opportunities, why are federal auditors taking notice?

Genuine faculty member?

One big difference is in how WGU structures and classifies its faculty, a model that isn’t explicitly addressed in federal financial aid regulations.

At traditional colleges, faculty members generally choose course materials and course curriculum, teach students, keep office hours to answer students’ questions about coursework, and grades tests and papers. They often encourage students to persevere, help with study skills and advise them about academic programs and careers, separate and apart from teaching a specific subject.

Johann Neem, a history professor at Western Washington University and a critic of WGU, was quoted in an article in “Inside Higher Ed,” in which about 10 education experts were asked to respond to the Office of Inspector General audit.

Neem wrote: “WGU has no professors; it cut up the components of faculty work – mentoring students, designing curricula, teaching, assessing student work and academic program governance – into distinct jobs. WGU’s accreditors inconceivably labeled these employees as faculty.

“The Department of Education demurred on the semantics but concluded, ‘only course mentors and evaluators, not student mentors, product managers or council members, could reasonably be considered instructors.’”

‘Regular, substantive interaction’

OIG auditors focused on a requirement that distance education programs – including online education programs – provide “regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors,” but regulations don’t define regular, substantive, interaction or instructor. Competency-based programs such as WGU also must provide regular and substantive interaction.

If a program doesn’t meet this requirement, it is considered a correspondence course. If more than 50 percent of a school’s regular students are enrolled in one or more correspondence course, the school is ineligible for federal financial aid.

Federal auditors – the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General –identified 102 courses students enrolled in WGU’s three largest undergraduate programs were required to take. The OIG determined that 69 of those courses offered two or fewer “substantive interactions” between student and instructor.

It considered only evaluators and course mentors as instructors, using the dictionary definition of instructor as someone who teaches a particular subject matter. That wasn’t sufficient substantive action in the eyes of the auditors.

Moreover, they found that 37,899 students – about 62 percent of WGU’s regular students at the time of the audit – were enrolled in at least one of these courses.

WGU, on the other hand, considers both course mentors and program mentors to be instructors. Its accreditors considered both types of mentors to be faculty, and WGU maintains that the accrediting agency’s determination is what matters. (WGU is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, based in Redmond, Washington. Efforts to talk with NWCCU representatives were unsuccessful.)

Program mentors have regular contact with students – weekly to begin with and every other week after the first term – assuming the student is progressing through coursework on time. WGU graduates contacted for this article saw program mentors as contributing to their educations. But the OIG doesn’t see student mentors as instructors.

In the two months since the OIG audit was released, WGU has vigorously disagreed with its findings.

For adult learners

In Tennessee, Estep sees the WGU faculty model as suited for adult learners who don’t want the college experience as a student right out of high school would. The average age of a WGU student is 37, she points out. “Our students are typically managing a full-time job, a family and going to school full time.”

WGU students learn in a variety of ways, some downloading podcasts so they can listen on the drive in to work, she adds.

“Our faculty records live webinars, in which the faculty member is explaining a concept” that’s critical for students to understand or that they know students often have a tough time grasping. The students can type in questions live to the faculty member. Faculty can go to a virtual blackboard to show how a problem is solved.

In addition, she says, program mentors handle much one-on-one work with students. They’ll ask where students got stuck in tackling an assignment and help them outline the task so it makes better sense and so they can complete it and move forward in their course work.

Program mentors are required to call their students once a week during their first six-month term. If students meet WGU’s on-time performance goals in the first term, the mentor calls every other week in later terms.

A program mentor may or may not have subject matter expertise in what the student is studying, but they typically have a master’s degree, Estep says. They also may set up contact between the student and course mentor.

“I have spoken to many students who say they spend 10 to 15 hours a week with a course mentor,” Estep explains. “It’s possible that in any given course they’re spending more time with course mentor” than with their program mentor.

So far, there has been no decision from the Department of Education on how it will respond to the OIG’s findings.

On Oct. 5, two weeks after the OIG audit came out, the state of North Carolina’s lieutenant governor, Dan Forest, announced a partnership with WGU to create WGU North Carolina. It became the seventh state to affiliate with WGU.

“Affordable access to accredited higher education is key to our state’s future and essential to bringing more highly skilled jobs to North Carolina,” Forest said in a statement. “WGU North Carolina complements our existing higher education institutions and will provide another pathway for many of our working adults who want to further their education.”