Why WGU is a Bad Idea for California

Distance Education Task Force member

In light of the Student Success Task Force Recommendations and a myriad of suggestions from sources about how to “fix” education in California, the Financial Aid Commission heard testimony in February 2012 from Western Governors University (WGU) and others about the potential of permitting students who are attending institutions that do not have a physical presence in California to access state financial aid. For a number of reasons this proposal should be the cause of some concern for community colleges.

What is Western Governors University?
WGU was founded in 1995 by governors from western states in an attempt to reach students who were not interested in a traditional approach to postsecondary education. Emphasizing skills acquisition and competencies as its measure of success and using student and course mentors rather than traditional faculty, WGU has expanded to enroll over 30,000 students throughout the country in its online programs. Over 2,000 of those students reside in California. The university is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities as well as by the Distance Education and Training Council.

When WGU first began to enroll students from California, the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges (ASCCC) opposed its accreditation by WASC in Resolution 2.05 (F98), asking “the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges to refuse to be a party to any accrediting activity for the Western Governors University or any other institution that does not maintain a permanent base of full-time faculty, student services, and processes for curriculum development and review.” Despite this criticism, WGU was accredited by other accrediting bodies, a status that is part of the motto of the university: “Online. Accelerated. Affordable. Accredited.”

External criticisms of the functions of the university led to a decrease in enrollment, and while students from California enrolled, those numbers remained fairly small. Then, in October 2010, the Legislative Analyst’s Office released a paper on “The Master Plan at 50: Using Distance Education to Increase College Access and Efficiency.” Included in the LAO recommendations was a call for the creation of a task force to research the possibility of establishing a California-WGU partnership, similar to the one that WGU created in Indiana. (See Rostrum article “Distance Education, the Wave of the Future?”, December 2010) Suddenly, interest in WGU peaked, culminating in representatives from the university testifying before the Financial Aid Commission in February 2012. As noted earlier, one of the requirements that an institution must meet in order to be eligible for Cal Grants is to have a physical presence in California; a change in this requirement would be necessary for WGU students to receive state financial aid.

Why should we oppose it?
One of the consistent criticisms of WGU is the lack of full time instructional faculty and the lack of faculty involvement in development of curriculum. As the university points out on its website, “Course Mentors are subject matter experts who support students as they engage specific sections of the WGU curriculum . . . Course Mentors do not develop WGU courses (this is a product management responsibility) … Their experience and training is specific to the courses they support.” Curriculum developed by non-faculty and taught by individuals with specific course skills—which sounds very much like a single course equivalency—is in direct opposition to the 10+1 and the other values that are central to an engaged and active faculty and that are directly supported by the Academic Senate.

Other concerns include the fact that, again according to the WGU website, “Program faculty at WGU do not teach but are academic experts with primary responsibility for defining the essential competencies for each subject area, working with our expert academic councils, developing courses of study, identifying the best learning resources, and working alongside the Course Mentors and Student Mentors to facilitate student learning and success.” Any university in which program faculty do not teach does not seem to align with the standards that the Academic Senate has developed for its faculty.

In addition, WGU governance is notable for an absence of faculty; the Academic Leadership Council includes no faculty members. The National Advisory Board, another element of the governance structure, is comprised of national foundations and businesses.

Who will it hurt?
If WGU students are permitted to access Cal Grants, it may very well take monies from the state that would otherwise be distributed to our students. With the current dearth of resources at the state and federal level, it seems counter intuitive to support the creation of an entity which will potentially dilute already scare resources. Given the lack of faculty involvement in both curriculum and teaching, as well as the seeming absence of student services (WGU has no counseling department, and there is a $145 per term charge for use of the library, for example), a partnership with an institution such as Western Governors University is clearly something about which the State of California should be wary.