The nonprofit Western Governors University is either a great experiment in higher education that has hit a bump in the road, or a flawed institution that is not providing its 83,000 enrolled students – 2,455 of whom live in Missouri – with the education they deserve. The first viewpoint comes from educators and many university alumni; the second is from the inspector general’s office of the U.S. Department of Education.
Neither side disputes the online university is innovative and has made higher education more affordable and accessible for low-income and nontraditional students. But the inspector general wants the university to pay back $713 million in federal loans and grants and be barred from receiving more payments.
The inspector general’s audit said WGU did not employ enough faculty to qualify as a distance education program as required for eligibility by a 1992 federal law – back when there was no such thing as an online university. The audit report said the university’s courses should have been labeled as correspondence courses, which are not eligible for federal financial aid.
Scott Pulsipher, president of WGU, says the audit took a narrow view of faculty roles, and that the school uses a nontraditional model. He says it has 2,000 faculty members involved in curriculum development, course teaching and student progress evaluation. WGU is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.
Congress clearly should update the 1992 law. Moving forward, the law could prove problematic for other online education programs as well. WGU has a competency-based education model, which allows students to master academic content at their own pace. Opinions vary on its viability.
Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, is skeptical. “By its nature, it’s highly susceptible to waste, fraud and abuse because you’re dispensing with the one rock-solid guarantor of integrity that there is, and that is qualified faculty,” he told The Washington Post.
Pulsipher says the model works for “contemporary students” who need flexibility to pursue higher education degrees. Graduates give WGU high marks. Its student engagement scores are consistently better than the national average, and 97 percent of graduates say they would recommend WGU to others. A recent Harris Poll showed graduates reporting their average income increase within four years of graduation was $19,100.
Pulsipher says most students pay $15,000 tuition to get a bachelor’s degree in 2½ years, and that 91 percent say it was worth the money. The school reports a 49 percent graduation rate. The national rate for standard four-year university programs is 59 percent.
Educators don’t expect the Trump administration to follow through on the inspector general’s recommendations, which the Education Department can reject. Congress should change the law to reflect the reality of today’s students.