I’m not being paid by anyone to write this, I just think this is a really cool option that I want to share with everyone.
The state of higher education is a much-discussed topic these days, and has been for the near-decade that I have been in academia. As the costs of higher education rise and the return on investment for a degree seems to decline, students increasingly wish for cheaper, more flexible options compatible with their work schedules. Just earlier this week, I was part of a Twitter discussion where many speculated that someday there might be a higher education option that harnesses the power of the internet to offer such a program–a perfect Magical Unicorn College, in which students progress at their own pace, on their own terms, and at a lower cost than a traditional university.
Well, friends, I’m happy to tell you that such a fantastical future is now! That university exists, and Mr. Steward is enrolled in it. It is called Western Governors University.
WGU is a totally online university that offers a select set of undergraduate and graduate degrees in Education, Business, Healthcare, and Information Technology. Several state governors saw the need for a flexible, low-cost option to enable professionals to further their education and founded the school (hence the name). To that end, there are no non-professional degrees offered. (This should come as no surprise as the Humanities increasingly face critique.)
WGU calls itself “competency based,” which essentially means that the coursework is pass/fail. Each course has a task, usually an exam or essay, that requires a minimum grade to show competency with the course material. If the grade is met, the course is passed. Exams can be taken on the hour any time of day. They are proctored via a university-provided webcam, with certain rules establishing the security of the exam environment. There are no other benchmarks, so if you’re already skilled at a subject, you can complete the course easily.
For instance, Mr. Steward has worked in Excel as a primary function of his job since he was 16. After skimming the course materials for his Spreadsheets course and realizing they were things he already knew, he took the practice exam. After handily passing it, he took the competency exam, and within two days of starting the course, BOOM, the course was done. It really is that simple with WGU.
“Semesters” are rolling six-month periods that begin the first of any month, and students are allowed to complete as many courses as they can within that period, with a minimum of four. Mr. Steward’s Bachelor’s degree required 26 courses after transferring in his Associate’s degree. He has already completed 7 courses in his first two months of coursework, and is aiming to complete 10-12 total this semester.
Tuition is flat-rate. For Mr. Steward’s degree, it is currently around $3500 per semester, although our employer pays for almost all of it. Tuition and financial assistance are also available, just as at other universities. The university is also accredited in the same way as any traditional university.
Admittance requires a telephone interview and typical materials such as an application with short-answer questions and copies of transcripts. Applicants must demonstrate their seriousness in pursuing the degree, their ability to successfully work within the open-ended course model, and the time and finances resources necessary to finish.
The composition of the course materials varies, but they are largely pre-recorded video sessions and readings, with section tests and practice questions to allow students to test their knowledge over each component.
Honestly, WGU strikes me as the best-kept secret in higher education. We had never heard of it until our employer formed a partnership with WGU Indiana to offer a small discount, but as soon as we looked into it, we knew it was perfect. We toyed with the idea of Mr. Steward finishing his Bachelor’s for years, but our only option seemed to be nearly four years of expensive night classes. That was not possible with a new marriage and then small kids. WGU will let Mr. Steward finish in nearly half the time, while still getting to work full-time and spend his waking hours with our family. Any self-driven person who wants to return to school should check out Western Governor’s University.