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Are Archaic Premises Fueling Feds’ Pursuit of WGU?

A recent report from a federal auditor from the U.S. Department of Education grabbed headlines by proffering the opinion that Western Governors University should repay more than $700 million in Title IV aid received by the university via attending students.

The report, titled Western Governors University Was Not Eligible to Participate in the Title IV Programs, argues that WGU faculty did not provide sufficient “regular and substantive” interaction with students, and that because over 50 percent of courses offered are categorized as “correspondence courses,” they are ineligible for the financial aid received.

The argument made in this report is absurd. It relies on the outdated belief that self-paced courses equate to students being “left to learn on his/her own.” This inaccurate association was first presented in an amendment to the Higher Education Act in 1992, at a time when the internet was still in its infancy, and completely overlooks recent advancements in educational tools and technology that allow instructors to connect with students in effective, if less conventional, ways. It is based on the notion that today, in the 21st century, instruction and/or coursework can only be provided or evaluated on the basis of a narrow set of antiquated rules dictating the ways in which students must engage with faculty or classes in order for the learning to “count.”

Research, data, and experience over the last two decades have demonstrated that for some students, new and emergent platforms for learning can be just as effective as the old “butts in seats” model — and for some students, these new platforms provide a richer, more engaging, and more cohesive way to obtain the education and skills they are seeking. Moreover, these new platforms have increased the opportunity for large portions of our nation’s population to seek and obtain postsecondary credentialing, many of whom would not have had such an opportunity without these innovations.

At issue in the case of WGU is a new model for the provision of higher education delivery online — pioneered by WGU to the benefit and gratitude of tens of thousands of accomplished and well-prepared graduates across the country — called competency-based learning. In this model, instruction is not characterized by an old, narrow definition, limiting learning to a lecturer with a static syllabus setting a single pace for all students enrolled in a given course and interacting at prescribed intervals. It isn’t bound by the adoption of inflexible techniques (for instance: recorded lectures, doled out one at a time to students regardless of their prior understanding of or experience with a subject), and it is not stuck to the notion that students should be held back in their educational progress even if they can demonstrate mastery of a given subject without a predetermined number of months or years spent in a classroom “relearning” it.

Instead, competency-based learning as WGU has implemented it allows students to dynamically engage with a curriculum, allowing them to navigate their learning experience in a way that makes sense for them, their learning styles, and their personal constraints, at their own pace, and leveraging their own accumulated knowledge and experience. In addition, WGU students are the beneficiaries of extensive interaction with a personalized support network, with expansive and genuinely meaningful access to instructors, mentors, advisors, peers, and others as they learn.

WGU has grown rapidly over the last decade, in large part due to the appeal of this innovative new approach to a broad swath of students. It’s inexpensive, and research has shown that outcomes are, at the very least, just as good as other “tried and true” approaches. It’s not for everyone — other models and institutions are better fits for a wide range of students seeking postsecondary education — but for a growing portion of our nation’s population, the innovative and effective approach to education pioneered by WGU has made all the difference in their ability to pursue and obtain higher education.

In the spirit of full disclosure, we have unique perspective on the extraordinary outcomes WGU has engendered for many students: our firm has worked closely with WGU on a range of initiatives over many years, among many other institutions of higher education of different varieties. We are not attorneys, nor are we auditors, and we are not interested in deconstructing the opinion of the federal auditors line-by-line. But from our perspective, this outrageous opinion is at best a mischaracterization based on a set of arcane, outdated, inflexible rules that will seek to punish a not-for-profit institution that has been nothing short of an example of how education can and ought to innovate to serve more students more meaningfully.

To be clear, we recognize there are bad actors in the world of higher education who are interested only in profiteering, taking money via federal aid from vulnerable students and offering little in the way of instruction, learning, or value in return, and the government must be empowered to regulate and penalize those bad actors. But to characterize WGU, or its platform, as such is simply irresponsible.

We are not only concerned about the implications of this report for WGU — we are also worried about the message it may send or precedent it may set across the higher education landscape, ultimately standing as a rejection of the capacity of education to evolve to meet the needs of the 21st century. Either way, for the benefit of students and our society, the rules must be rewritten, and a revision to this report should quickly follow.

Dr. Trent Kaufman is CEO of the Cicero Group and Aaron Andersen is Cicero Higher Education Practice Lead.

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