Western Governors U’s Competency-Based Education Attracts Students

With its competency-based approach to college education, Western Governors University (WGU) is becoming very popular among students — the school currently has around 5,300 students from Washington. The all-online school received official recognition from the Legislature in mid-2011, according to Jordan Schrader of the News Tribune, and has grown since.

The online school provides competency-based education, requiring a student to achieve competency in a subject before earning credit. Tests can be retaken, more than twice under certain restrictions. There is no grading system, according to the school, and employers can be confident that WGU graduates have mastered the skills they need for their fields.

The school still requires the kind of hands-on training in teaching and nursing that brick-and-mortar schools do. But some school districts report that it's not enough for their liking, and that WGU graduates have additional hurdles to becoming student teachers.

In the 2012-2013 school year, WGU was one of the most popular places for Washington community-college students to transfer. According to a recent survey, transfers to WGU exceeded those to all other private schools surveyed – including the for-profit online University of Phoenix – as well as some of the state's public four-year universities.

Unlike other universities, WGU awards credit without regard to time spent taking a class. Students pay by the six-month term, not by the credit hour, and can pack as many credits as they are able into a term.

The school is offering bachelor's or master's degrees in four areas: business, information technology, health care and teaching.

"We've got to, in the next five years or so, increase total degree production by maybe 50%" to meet the demands of Washington employers, said House Higher Education Committee Chairman Larry Seaquist, who advocated for the state changes. The Gig Harbor Democrat said the state has to offer a wide menu of college programs to attract many kinds of students.

WGU is not receiving or seeking a state subsidy. But lawmakers this year ensured the school would be treated essentially as a Washington-based college, despite its headquarters in Salt Lake City. The lawmakers' endorsement was key to the non-profit's surge in Washington enrollments.

"It does allow them to kind of position themselves as a Washington institution rather than as some out-of-state institution. It does seem to have a little different kind of resonance," said Randy Spaulding, director of academic affairs and policy for the Washington Student Achievement Council, the state higher-education coordinating board.

WGU now can target advertising to television stations, billboards, and local websites in Washington, which now has the most WGU students of any state.

Some teachers at four-year public schools are concerned about WGU. Moving forward with WGU, lawmakers are creating an illusion that the state is producing more degrees even though they have reduced public funding for higher education, according to United Faculty of Washington State President Bill Lyne. However, Jean Floten, chancellor of WGU Washington, said that the university offers new opportunities to people who would never have attended college.

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