Mary Carney spent just two years and $10,000 to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nursing, then landed a job paying 65 percent more than her old job.
She did it at Western Governors University, an online-only college that came to Indiana in 2010 using a concept called competency-based education.
With Indiana and the nation as a whole trying desperately to boost the numbers of adults with postsecondary degrees, without bankrupting either public coffers or private bank accounts, the pace and parsimony of WGU’s competency-based model may be a recipe made to order.
“We’re looking for ways to increase the capacity of the system. That’s why I think this is a really important concept and getting more attention now,” said Jamie Merisotis, CEO of Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education.
Competency-based education, according to WGU’s model, allows students to complete courses as fast as they want and to take as many courses as they want per semester—all for the same per-semester fee. Students earn credit only if they pass an end-of-course assessment.
But whether the low-cost, high-speed model of WGU comes to influence the rest of higher education is an open question.
Many think the increasing availability of competency-based educational options—combined with cost pressures and employer demands for higher quality—will force most universities to adopt competency-based techniques.
Some institutions, such as Ivy Tech Community College, are adopting it in a limited way in their programs. So are schools outside of Indiana—such as DePaul University, Northern Arizona University and Southern New Hampshire University.
But few traditional schools in Indiana have plans to adopt competency-based education in a way that allows students to progress toward degrees on their own time lines. Such schools as Indiana University, Indiana State University and even for-profit educators like Harrison College say they plan to stick closely to their models that require specific amounts of time in class to graduate.
Lumina has set a goal for the nation, which has been mimicked by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, for 60 percent of all adults to have a postsecondary credential by the year 2025. Only about 33 percent of Hoosier adults have a postsecondary degree.
Getting there will require colleges and universities as a whole to operate far more efficiently. That’s why Gov. Mitch Daniels, who sponsored WGU’s arrival in Indiana, has also pushed the Legislature to make more funding for all Indiana public colleges and universities hinge on their costs per graduate.
For the past two decades, costs have soared at Indiana’s colleges while graduation rates have been stubbornly low. That has left nearly 750,000 Hoosiers adults with some college credits—and the student loan debt that goes with it—but no degree.
It’s that pool of students that WGU is aiming for. Students like Carney.
She earned an associate’s degree in nursing in 1980 at age 25. She planned to go on for a bachelor’s degree, but her husband lost his job. So she worked for the next three decades, as well as raising and homeschooling four children.
At age 55, she decided it was now or never for getting her bachelor’s degree. She researched every school within driving distance of her home in Lebanon.
Nearly all of them would apply her associate’s degree—earned at Purdue University’s Calumet campus—toward a bachelor’s degree. And nearly all of them offered courses at nights or online, to make them convenient for working adults. Some even offered accelerated programs, which crammed more coursework into a shorter time period.
But what none of them offered was the ability to take courses “asynchronously”—that is, to do the coursework at her own speed and at the times of the day and the week convenient for her.
Those were critical factors for Carney because she worked 12-hour night shifts, three days a week—but never the same days. That’s common among nurses.
“So many of the brick-and-mortar schools want to put their content online and then say they have online content,” said Carney, who is now 57.
The content might be online, but it was not accessible 24/7. Assignments or tests often had to be completed within limited time slots.
She found the same to be true even at most of the online programs run by for-profit companies. “If brick-and-mortar schools could do one thing, it is make their programs run asynchronously.”
The average WGU student completes a bachelor’s degree in three years instead of nearly five at traditional universities.
And WGU includes a strong incentive for students to finish quickly. It allows its students to take as many courses as possible within a six-month time frame—for the same flat fee.
Carney completed seven courses for her bachelor’s degree in six months, and paid just $3,325 for it. She took a full year for her master’s program, paying $6,650 for that.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she got a job in the pediatric intensive care unit at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis. She now earns $38 an hour, up from the $23 an hour she made before going to WGU.
“It opened up a lot of doors for me,” Carney said.
Even so, Carney said, she gets lots of comments and questions about the quality of her degrees. WGU gets the same questions.
So in response, it has produced lots of metrics on what its students can do. For example, WGU seniors score higher on the Collegiate Learning Assessment—a test designed to assess students’ abilities to write, make arguments and critique arguments—than 78 percent of their peers at 171 other higher education institutions that administer the test.
And 100 percent of employers, surveyed by Harris Interactive, said WGU graduates were prepared for their jobs. Only 42 percent of WGU graduates reported a salary increase after graduating, according to Harris, but only 33 percent of all higher education graduates reported a salary increase.
WGU is able to produce such good results because it overhauled the role of faculty members, said Bob Mendenhall, who helped 19 governors found WGU in 1997. The not-for-profit is headquartered in Salt Lake City.
Some professors serve as students’ individual mentors, holding weekly conversations and help sessions with them throughout their time at WGU. Other faculty members serve a similar mentor role during the times students are taking a particular course. A third group of professors do all the grading of students’ work. And a fourth group designs the courses and assessments.
That separation of roles, as well as the use of online technology, allows WGU to have a student-to-teacher ratio of 50-to-1, which is double or triple that found at most traditional universities.
Yet WGU students rate the quality of their relationships with faculty members higher than do students at more than 575 other institutions that participated in the National Survey of Student Engagement.
Also, Mendenhall said, WGU has narrowed its mission to only bachelor’s and master’s degrees in just four areas: nursing, business, information technology and teaching.
“If we had 300 different programs and 20 people in each, we’d be just as inefficient as any other university,” Mendenhall said.
Other universities have taken notice of WGU’s results. Just this year, WGU started holding seminars to teach administrators from other universities about competency-based education. The seminars were a response to the overwhelming number of calls WGU has been receiving in recent years.
And other schools are embracing key parts of WGU’s model. For example, Southern New Hampshire University revamped its bachelor’s in business administration program using competency-based modules that could eliminate a year of study, while producing better learning among students.
Ivy Tech will turn its Ivy Institute of Technology into a fully competency-based set of programs in 2013. Ivy Institute offers accelerated programs in high-demand, hands-on areas, including automotive; heating, ventilation and air-conditioning; machine tooling; advanced manufacturing; office administration; and welding.
Mary Ostyre, Ivy Tech’s provost, said Ivy Institute will start students once a quarter—versus any time for WGU—but the students can finish any time they want.
“It’s as close to Western Governors as we can get with a lab-based curriculum,” Ostyre said.
The breakthrough for Ivy Institute came when the U.S. Department of Education said students could still get a full amount of federal aid even if they complete courses in less time than a typical semester.
“We’re not going to slow you down to get your aid,” Ostyre said.
Not for everyone
John Applegate, who is Indiana University’s senior vice president for regional affairs, planning and policy, said the WGU or Southern New Hampshire models aren’t for all students. Many learn best—and prefer to learn—in interactive classrooms with other students.
“That kind of learning, obviously, wouldn’t be very productive at all, say, for someone who just graduated from high school,” he said.
That’s why IU’s online programs still follow a fairly typical course schedule. And it’s why IU continues to operate its string of eight regional campuses around Indiana. Applegate said IU has no plans to embrace fully asynchronous online courses on its regional campuses.
“I see IU doing a wide range of students’ needs and desires, but not every single need,” he said.
However, IU is tiptoeing into some elements of competency-based education. It recently launched a project that will experiment with massively open online courses, which will be available for non-credit students all over the world.
And, at the suggestion of the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits many universities, IU is working to more specifically define the learning goals of its courses and degrees—then develop assessments to ensure that students have, indeed, learned those things.
Other schools in Indiana are keeping tabs on WGU-style competency-based learning, but are still staying fairly close to their traditional models.
“We have a lot of conversations going on and are trying to keep a close eye on what’s happening in higher education around these activities,” said Ken Brauchle, dean of extended learning at Indiana State University. “We’re certainly sensitive to the state’s goal of increasing the number of people with postsecondary credentials.”
At Indianapolis-based Harrison College, a for-profit educator, all students take a variety of assessments to prove competency at the end of their courses and degree programs. But Harrison, which already has 30 percent of its students taking classes only online, still requires those students to interact with other students as they progress through each 16-week course.
“Not all students are at the point where they want to be in an independent-study type course. Some students want to be in a traditional class or in a 15-person online class,” said Nelson Soto, Harrison’s associate provost for curriculum and instruction.
Purdue University and Ball State University declined to make administrators available to comment on this story.
Merisotis, the Lumina Foundation chief, thinks the demands of employers, parents and state legislatures will force most colleges and universities to adopt competency-based techniques to ensure their graduates actually know what they’re supposed to know, actually finish on time, and do so for a reasonable cost.
“There’s so much economic pressure and so much potential for really dramatically bad outcomes that, really, it’s forcing a lot of these changes,” Merisotis said. “I think you will see competency-based learning becoming common in the majority of institutions in the next decade.”•