By the numbers: How different is this fully online university from a traditional one?

Western Governors University president says 'there's something about just saying we’ve got to disrupt this centuries-old convention that exists.'

(This is the first of two stories on the continuing impact being made by fully online Western Governors University, a non-profit bachelor’s degree institution based in Salt Lake City.)

The theme adopted by the fully online Western Governors University in reaching its silver anniversary this year is “25 Years of Breaking Tradition.” Indeed, WGU has kicked the four-year model to the curb, especially over the past decade.

Students who attend and graduate not only get their bachelor’s degrees in half the time, but they also tend to see greater earnings after six years, incur less debt and are happier, according to several measures done by longtime partner Gallup. Those data combined with its strong academic reputation have led to WGU attracting more students than ever. Currently, 200,000 are enrolled in its career-driven programs, while its alumni have surpassed 300,000. Five years ago, its graduates across two decades totaled less than 100,000.

Embedded in its core philosophy is reaching every one of those students, and notably, not turning any of them away. It is a wholly different approach–adopted too by Purdue Global, ASU Online and Southern New Hampshire–than traditional institutions have been willing to take, especially the elites.

“The ability to think differently really means that you’re putting the individual student at the center of everything that you do in higher education,” WGU President Scott Pulsipher said during the recent announcement of Gallup’s WGU 25th Anniversary Impact Report. “One of the simple notions is to dispel this idea that somehow selectivity, exclusivity or who you admit is more important than how you expand access to every single human, that you can recognize that even when you have 300,000, and keep adding 50,000 more to that, that all of their lives change. Opportunity expands when you have more people participating in it. No way should we limit those who can actually access these pathways to help them change their lives for the better.”

That message was echoed by Brandon Busteed, the President of Kaplan University Partners, during a panel session recently at WGU with Gallup. He said fully online institutions like WGU are changing perceptions among students and families who are doing searches. Even traditionally younger students are being swayed because of their quick time to degrees and their flexibility. But it’s also because their model is truly inclusive, a one-for-all approach that runs counter to prestige and selectivity.

“These are incredibly student-centric institutions that are employer and market responsive,” Busteed said. “And that’s the opposite of where most R1 and elite universities are, which are primarily faculty centric, and trying to drive with government research. There are other components that are really important. Growth is part of the mission of those institutions. They desire to grow. And they view growth as improving quality, not lowering it. That is the opposite of most elite-minded institutions and residential institutions. They might want to grow on the margin, an extra 50 students here, but it’s not inherently part of their mission. They think about growth as cheapening or lessening quality. And the irony is, you’re seeing the opposite with these other models.”

More from UB: Opinion: The college campus of the future will be hybrid

Transforming higher ed

It isn’t just the onlines that are transforming higher ed. Many institutions, recognizing potential contraction or enrollment declines on the horizon, are shifting how they operate. Some are reorganizing academic structures and departments, such as Kean University in New Jersey and the University of Hawaii. Many are developing shorter pathways to degrees and increasing certificate offerings. Most are continuing to embrace flexible learning modalities. And a few are taking the bold step of lowering tuition.

“I am encouraged by the fact that some of the public institutions are actually finding the innovation that existed within a for-profit sector that was persona non grata in higher ed,” Pulsipher said. “We get all the reasons why. But there’s something about just saying we’ve got to disrupt this centuries-old convention that exists. If we can shift our mindset away from rankings and selectivity and research-only to how are we expanding dramatically our ability to enable individuals, the better off all of us will be.”

The bigger barrier remains cost. Busteed says consumers are being more discerning about putting their money in the right institution.

“The big challenge we have is that the cost of higher education has just continued to spiral out of control,” he said. “It’s a big reason why we have so many sessions about, ‘is it worth it?’ Tuition has gone up 400-plus percent since the early 1980s. That’s double what healthcare has gone up. We need to get to the place where we are working to lower the cost of higher education, not keep it flat, or the 3.5% annual increase. People are incredibly ROI sensitive now. I think we’re looking at an ROI generation, even among traditional-age students and parents of traditional-age students.”

To say WGU and its online colleagues have made an impact on higher education would be an understatement. WGU will admit that it can improve its first-year, full-time student graduation rates (though its huge transfer numbers push completion higher) but it has been a disruptor, especially now in an unsettled economic environment and where many students already have experienced a dose of online learning during the pandemic.

WGU’s impact, by the numbers

$15,000: The difference in value of salaries after six years for students who attend WGU compared with all other bachelor’s degree conferring colleges and universities, thanks to its lean toward fields that are in demand. Master’s degree holders also outpace their rivals by $8,000.

81%: The percentage of students earning bachelor’s degrees from WGU who do so in less than four years. More than one-third of those do it in less than two. It takes the average graduate at WGU 2.4 years to finish. It takes others at traditional institutions 5.4 years.

$11,222: The net cost of attendance at WGU. The average cost at a four-year is $23,000, though many public institutions can be equally as competitive. The average debt of a WGU student is $8,700, compared with $12,000 at others.

42,698: Degrees conferred in 2020 alone at WGU (with more than 24,000 earning bachelor’s degrees).

35: Average age of a student starting at WGU, about 12 years older than the average at a traditional four-year institution

7%: The paltry percentage of students at WGU in the under-25 category from 2003-2019, more than 50% lower than their traditional rivals.

57%: The percentage of WGU’s students who are married. That also surpasses its online rivals by nearly 20%.

47%: The percentage of students at WGU who are first-generation, far surpassing the 35% of first-gen students at other institutions

22%: Where WGU is behind the curve is in the number of students of color. Nationally, the number at other four years is 29%, while at other fully onlines, it is 36%.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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