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VOL. 40 | NO. 27 | Friday, July 1, 2016

Western Governors University takes on detractors, keeps growing

By Linda Bryant

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Graduation at WGU Tennessee

-- Submitted Photograph Courtesy Of Ed Rode Photography And Wgu

Western Governors Tennessee, a state-endorsed, nonprofit, accredited university was launched in July 2013, has one goal – to expand working adults’ access to higher education through online learning.

Chancellor Dr. Kimberly K. Estep, based at WGU Tennessee’s main office in Franklin, spends her time traveling the state, working with higher-education, community, and business leaders to increase awareness of WGU Tennessee, boost recruitment and establish partnerships.

“Online learning has been around for a long time now, but there are still people who say, “If it’s online it’s not legitimate,” says Estep. “There are best practices now established about what makes the best course. I pursued an online master’s degree in adult education from the University of Georgia in 2004.That program was even more challenging than my on-ground work at Auburn University.

“One critical thing we do very well at WGU is have strong identity verification in place. You’ve got to know who the student is who is taking an assessment. All of our assessments [a three-part testing and admission process] are proctored either at a testing center or through remote proctoring.’’

WGU Tennessee is in a partnership with Western Governors University, a large nonprofit university with over 67,000 students, 50 accredited undergraduate and graduate degree programs in 50 states. The school was founded by the governors of 19 U.S. states in order to address the demand for online adult education.

While it’s not hard to find students and educators who sing the praises of WGU’s platform, it does come with formidable challenges.

College Factual, an education technology company and provider of data-driven, college rankings, lists Western Governors University as among the worst performing schools nationally when it comes to graduation rates.

College Factual’s data show 73 percent of students nationally make it past their freshman year, which is slightly higher than the national average. But the issue comes with degree completion rates.

Only 7.3 percent of students graduate from Western Governors University on time (two or four years depending on the degree), according to the report, and only 16.7 percent graduate.

“Based on the caliber of students that attend Western Governors University, we would expect an overall graduation rate of 47.8 percent,” the company states on its website.

“With an actual rate that is 31.0 percent lower than expected, Western Governors University is among the worst performing schools nationally when it comes to graduating students based upon those students’ anticipated academic achievement in college.”

Chancellor Estep addressed this issue and others, as well as discussing WGU Tennessee’s future, in a conversation with The Ledger.

While making no judgment about quality, education research company College Factual states WGU is among the worst-performing schools nationally when it comes to graduation rates. According to the company, 73 percent of WGU students make it past their freshman year, which is slightly higher than the national average But the site also says that 7.3 percent of students graduate from Western Governors University on time (two or four years depending on the degree) and 16.7 percent graduate at all. Do these stats match up with your internal data?

“No, those numbers are not accurate. The numbers from the College Factual website are IPEDS data [National Center for Education Statistics] we reported incorrectly, also comprise data that is at least four years old and only reflect about 1 percent of our students.

“Again, we rigorously track our data internally and the 79 percent one-year retention rate is a better indicator, as it encompasses all of our students as opposed to a tiny fraction.”

Do you have any graduation rates for WGU Tennessee?

“Because we’ve only been in operation for three years, we don’t yet have meaningful data for WGU Tennessee graduation rates. Regarding graduation numbers for WGU nationally: for students who began a degree program at WGU in 2011, the actual four-year graduation rate was 44 percent.

“For students who began in 2009, the actual six-year graduation rate was 39 percent. As you noted, our one-year retention rate in 2015 was 79 percent, which is 5 percentage points higher than the national average of 74 percent.

“Based upon our internal tracking data, we project the four-year rate graduation rate for students who began in 2013 to be 44 percent in 2017, and we anticipate the six-year graduation rate for students who began in 2013 to be 54 percent in 2019 – a marked improvement in both metrics.

Kimberly Estep, Ph.D. is the chancellor of WGU Tennessee.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“Additionally, it’s important to note the measures WGU is addressing the issue of student debt. You can learn more about our Responsible Borrowing Initiative at www.wgu.edu/tuition_financial_aid/financial_aid.

“Our three-year student loan default rate is just 5 percent, compared with the national average of 11.8 percent.”

Does the issue of graduation rates indicate in a larger way one of the challenges of online education? Are you trying to improve graduation/retention rates?

“For virtually every college and university in the country, online or brick-and-mortar, graduation and retention rates are always a challenging priority. With online education in particular, the challenge is to sustain engagement with the student from the moment she begins a degree until the moment she graduates.

“WGU seeks to achieve this through its faculty mentor model. A faculty mentor calls each student on a near-weekly basis to provide one-on-one academic support, helping the student to stay focused on the immediate coursework and tasks at hand, as well as ensuring the student understands the overall shape of the roadmap for her degree plan.

“Most of our students are working adults, and for some of them, unexpected financial emergencies can imperil their progress towards a degree. To address that, WGU has an outreach program that works with students coping with emergencies such as natural disasters or personal life events.

“Finally, to bolster student morale and facilitate a cohesive university community “offline,” WGU Tennessee hosts events throughout the year in all three parts of the state (East, Middle, and West) to give students opportunities to network with each other and with faculty. From these events, friendships are often forged, study groups formed, and professional networks are strengthened.’’

What sets WGU Tennessee apart for the adult learner?

“We were created for working adults. Our average student is 37, much older than the average. It also encompasses a lot of people who are finishing another degree either because they are changing careers or moving up because they need to have a master’s degree, for example, to move into a different role. A significant amount of our students have already earned a degree and some from quite a while ago – 20 years ago or more.’’

What is your growth like?

“Our costs are typically around half of similar programs, which are often private schools offering all-online degree programs. The other part of our program that’s really quite different is that how much it costs depends on how fast the student goes. That’s the benefit of competency-based programs (CBE) – students move at their own pace. If they are willing and able to put in 40 hours a week they are able to go much faster. We don’t charge by the course. The real cost savings is not just in our annual tuition, which is $6,000 a year, but also in the fact that it gives students the opportunity to buckle down and finish their degree in less time than they would have otherwise.

“They pay a flat rate for a six-month time frame/semester and during that time frame they can finish as many courses as they can finish. The costs savings can be huge if the student has a lot of experience they can leverage, and they’re willing and able to go quickly.

“You don’t have to go fast. However, we don’t allow part-time enrollment. You have to commit to a full time load – three or four courses every six months. You have longer to do the courses, and that’s what some people do.

“We don’t use the term credit hours, because we don’t base courses on time. We call them competency units. One of our (competency- based) units is essentially equivalent to a credit hour. Students sign up for about 12 at the beginning of a term.

“If you’re working a lot of hours and balancing a family it may be all you’re able to do in six months. You’ll have more time because our semesters are longer. So, students can go slower, but it will cost them a little more than if they flew through like the wind.

“Our faculty works 12 months out of the year and our faculty mentors call their students every week. There’s an important personal connection there that goes throughout the year?

“We have grown from 650 to 2,600 in three years. We have almost 1,300 alumni in the state already. We are close to our original projections, just a little bit lower. It’s just really challenging to get the word out in a state where the overall degree rates are rather low. We are very happy to be where we are after three years on the ground.

“The numbers Gov. Haslam’s office compiled at the beginning of Drive to 55 indicated there were 940,000 Tennesseans who have some college but no college degree. That’s almost a million people who could benefit from what we offer. Many just don’t know we’re out there.

“I travel all over the state, putting on about 30,000 miles a year on my car. A lot of my job involves opening doors for prospective students, employers and potential partners. There’s so much ground to cover. Getting close to 3,000 students is encouraging, but it’s nowhere near where the state needs to be.’’

How do you find students?

“Because our students are working adults, we don’t find students in the way colleges and universities typically find students. For example, we don’t reach out to high school students. We primarily reach out to prospective students by going through our partnerships with their employers.

“For example, we have a wonderful, long-standing partnership with HCA. We have an agreement that’s been in place for many years that gives HCA employees a discount. HCA, in return, helps make sure their employees know we are one of their options. If a nurse wants to get a bachelor’s or master’s they’ll know about us. What we have to do to really grow our partnerships – go into the hospitals and highlight what we offer at a benefits fair or another kind of an event.’’

How is WGU Tennessee different than the national version of WGU?

“Four years ago (before the launch of WGU Tennessee) there already were a few WGU students in the state. We hired a staff on the ground and have over 100 employees in the state. We have a lot more physical presence. We can do more things for students now. We host events for our alumni and students. We are available to go into a hospital, school or benefits fair and are there physically. We work with local media outlets to provide press releases that are localized to the needs of our state.

“There are only six states that have state-based WGU programs. (Tennessee, Nevada, Washington, Indiana, Texas and Missouri.) A lot of the purpose (with the state approach) is to partner with the State Legislature and the Governor’s office, or both. It helps everyone to see WGU as part of the kaleidoscope of things that have to happen in order to grow an educated workforce and bring in employers that have high quality jobs.

“WGU was a really good match with Gov. Haslam’s Drive to 55 program, which aims to quickly grow the number of college graduates in the state. We can quickly grow this competency-based program if we are able to localize our message to what the state is doing.

“All of our programs, and even our faculty who live in the state, teach in programs that are consistent from state to state. Since they are individualized, the student works at their own pace with their own faculty member/mentor throughout the program. If, for some reason, you get transferred to Kentucky, you keep the same curriculum and have the same mentor. WGU is a really good option for students who are in a position where they need to travel or relocate. They really don’t miss a beat.’’

What difference does it make if the teachers are in Tennessee?

“Our faculty mentors in Tennessee will have a lot of Tennessee students, but they don’t have to mentor just Tennessee students. WGU likes to create employment opportunities in the states where we have a presence. We want to invest back into Tennessee.’’

Talk to me about CBE? Why is it such a growing trend in education?

“There are a lot of ways to do competency-based education, and the way we do is not the only way to do it. The fundamental Cliff Notes version of CBE is that students learn material – and are measured on what they know – regardless of how much time they spent learning that particular thing.

“We’ve held assessments consistent, which is very different from traditional higher education where two faculty members might access the same skill but in completely different ways. At WGU all of our assessments are the same regardless of where the student lives. It’s a consistent standard.

“How long it takes to get there, what resources used to build that knowledge base is really up to the student. For example, it might take me six months to work on a particular course I find challenging. Somebody who comes in with a particular experience in that area might be able to finish that same course in less than a month.’’

Are there grades at WGU?

“We don’t give grades. We use a Pass/Fail system. You are either competent or you’re not. Our test scores are typically at least a B-level. Something that might be good enough in a typical class, let’s say a paper with a C grade, doesn’t work in our system. Even if a student turns something in that’s pretty good, he or she will likely have to revise and resubmit it if doesn’t show competency. It can sometimes be quite a bit harder (than a traditional class.)’’

You have a power-packed advisory board with the top brass of entities such as the Greater Nashville Chamber of Commerce, Ingram Industries, FedEx, BlueCross BlueShield Tennessee and HCA involved. How important is this board?

“Our statewide advisory board that was put together at the time we launched. They were primarily selected by Gov. Haslam’s office. They wanted to get people to represent various industries, and they wanted representation from all three parts of the state.

“The board advises us about how to form strategic partnerships with employers. They’ve opened a lot of doors for us and proven to be very critical for us. I can’t say enough about how much they’ve worked to expand awareness of WGU Tennessee and competency-based education.’’

Are you seeing any notable trends in education at WGU Tennessee?

“We’ve seen a huge uptick in our business college. Our MBA program has taken off like crazy. When people find out that it’s $6,500 a year for all you can learn, they realized it’s just about the best deal on an MBA you can find anywhere.

“I also see a big uptick is in nursing. We are in hospitals a lot. Typically, they are pushing their employees (to get more degrees). A lot of them are trying to get to 80 percent BSN (bachelors of nursing) so they can achieve magnet status. A lot of them give very generous tuition reimbursement to their nurses going back for BSN or RN degrees.

“We have great stories of nurses who decided after 20 years on the floor they wanted to be a CNO (chief nursing officer), or they’ve decided they want to teach nursing and they need that master’s degree to do it. We get a lot of folks who hit their 40s and 50s who are looking for a second career.

“WGU was built with the assumption that when an adult comes back to school they already have acquired a lot of knowledge and skills. We know you don’t have to spoon feed them everything in the curriculum. Many have learned things by working in the field, or even in a different field, they can apply to the new degree.’’

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