President’s corner: How Western Governors lives its obsession with students

The nearly 30-year-old university describes Pulsipher as an expert in disruptive innovation. Here are some aspects of his strategy that fit the bill.

Western Governors University is the titanium needle in the haystack in the U.S. higher education landscape. It boasts some of the highest student satisfaction rates in the country despite being one of the only universities to follow a self-paced, competency-based learning model. It enrolls 20 times more students than the average institution.

In a heated political climate, the private nonprofit garners the respect and attention of higher ed leaders from both sides of the political spectrum. Such a novel institution must require an equally distinguished leader. Scott Pulsipher, the third president of Western Governors, is just that.

A businessman with over 20 years of experience at Amazon, Sterling Commerce (now part of IBM) and two successful startups, Pulsipher has transferred his leadership experience at some of the most customer-centric U.S. organizations to a university “obsessed” with its students and their learning outcomes.

“The student-as-a-customer approach means that we recognize the individual student as the primary beneficiary of everything that we’ve undertaken,” the eight-year president says. “We recognize many other institutions may have multiple constituents that they intend to serve, but we are singularly focused on delivering value for the student.”

The nearly 30-year-old university describes Pulsipher as an expert in disruptive innovation. Here are some aspects of his strategy that fit the bill:

A fresh take on improving student learning outcomes

Something you’re likely to hear Pulsipher say when he’s talking about student success is building a fully integrated experience through the lifespan of the student’s journey. Western Governors constantly analyzes and reanalyzes how to seamlessly progress students from one term to the next, removing the disjointed nature of term-to-term education and siloed program instruction.

“If you think about 40 courses or 120 units of credit being a scaffold, we try to look at that and understand how you would build that in a much more personalized, comprehensive, fully integrated and natural kind of flow from one thing to the next,” the president says.

Each student at Western Governors is paired with a college mentor who helps them plan, navigate and redirect their academic journey. One Gallup poll found that college students who had access to a mentor were more likely to complete college and feel prepared for life after college.

This personalized focus on each student extends to financial aid planning as well. Western Governors provides students with individualized budget plans that map out exactly how much money they will need to borrow. Since the university began the Responsible Borrowing Initiative, undergraduate students finish with half the debt of their national peers.

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Moreover, Western Governors’ AI-powered Learner Care Dashboard can tailor recommendations to faculty and mentors on how to engage with students depending on their interaction with the learning management system. University internal data declares that students are 20% more likely to complete their course when faculty alerted by the dashboard provide timely outreach.

“What the internet did for access, we see AI and technology being able to do for learning outcomes,” he says. “It’s so encouraging, and we’re just at the beginning of [AI] the same way WGU was at the beginning of expanding access with the internet 25-plus years ago.”

Remapping credentials

The prospective employee’s journey in today’s workforce environment can’t be constrained to the four-year degree, Pulsipher says. It requires a careful embrace of new credential types that can be completed in tempo with speedy developments in AI, automation, finance, health care and even teaching.

In the past year, WGU’s business and technology schools launched the first series of standalone, short-term credentials in leadership, supply chain management, accounting fundamentals, software deployment and more. Furthermore, students on track to complete a bachelor’s degree in the information technology school automatically earn industry certificates that boost their resume profile. 

“If you fast forward 10 years, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of individuals enrolled in short-form credentials is as many—if not more—than those enrolled in traditional bachelor’s programs,” Pulsipher says.

In defense of the “transactional” degree

Some may argue that universities today are becoming too transactional—that universities narrowly focused on vocation may neglect a young student’s inner development and not focus on the intangibles that the liberal arts has to offer.

Pulsipher believes these critics overlook the fact that postsecondary institutions committed to economic mobility are a catalyst for developing engaged citizens. Because upward mobility and civic engagement go hand in hand, Western Governors bakes analytical and critical thinking, interpersonal engagement and oral communication into all of its career-oriented programs.

“I’ve never seen an engaged citizen who didn’t also have a great job,” he says. “If I can live a self-determined life because of my financial well-being, then I tend to be more engaged in the social experience, I tend to be more engaged in citizenry and I tend to be more engaged in my family and my community—it’s a noble endeavor to deliver value.”


Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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