Leadership & Governance

How One College Takes a ‘Customer-Centric’ Approach to Higher Education

Scott Pulsipher, president, Western Governors U.

November 29, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz


Scott Pulsipher left a career in Silicon Valley to become the new president of Western Governors University. During a recent visit to The Chronicle, he described how the competency-based education provider builds relationships with students and judges its success, like helping graduates earn five-figure increases in pay within two years.

"Education," he said, "is a great catalyst for people to change their lot in life."


DAN BERRETT: Hi, we're here with Scott Pulsipher, President of Western Governors University. President Pulsipher, welcome to The Chronicle.

SCOTT D. PULSIPHER: Thank you so much for having me.

DAN BERRETT: Thank you. So our viewers and readers who are not familiar with Western Governors should know that it is celebrating its 20th anniversary next year.

SCOTT D. PULSIPHER: That's right.

DAN BERRETT: It's an online competency-based model, and has served about 70,000 students. Is that right?

SCOTT D. PULSIPHER: That's right.

DAN BERRETT: Great. Well, so you started back in April, replacing Bob Mendenhall, who was the founding president. Now, you come from a very different background from Silicon Valley based corporations, like Amazon and Needle. How does that background prepare you for a job like Western Governors?

SCOTT D. PULSIPHER: That's a great question. I think there are two things, in particular. One is the technology space and the technology sector, in general. It thrives on innovation. I think one of the unique things about WGU, too, is that it's really invested in an innovation led culture and innovation led mindset, and really advancing how we provide a better outcome for students, how we increase accessibility of higher education, how we improve its affordability and the quality of it.

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That innovation led mindset, that's one of the things that you really learn being in and around startups, being in around technology companies, is that you have a real passion for how technology advances the future. The other key thing-- and this is particularly true with some of the startups that I was a part of and, also, Amazon-- is that customer centric leadership. And in many ways, our students are our customers.

We also have customers in the employers, if you will. Because first and foremost, we have to ensure that we have an incredibly great product for the students that we're trying to serve. And when you have a student centric or a very customer centric approach to higher education, you might think differently about how they have to accomplish what they need to accomplish. How do they progress and learn? How do we improve the engagement with faculty? How do we increase the technology used to ensure that they have a greater probability of achieving their degree?

And also knowing that when we do so, that, that student is carrying with them the credentials and the credibility that the employers are ultimately seeking. And so that customer centric background is really helpful when I approach the challenges that we have at WGU.

DAN BERRETT: Now, and in institution of higher ed, words like customer and product cause a lot of consternation in people. So what are some ways that you've had to adjust your thinking to being in a space like higher ed, as opposed to being in the for profit sector?

SCOTT D. PULSIPHER: One of the things is, I think in particular, is that a student, one of the things that we care about, is the ability to create, or at least help the individual become a lifelong learner. There's no doubt that we are not serving a student on a singular transaction.

One of the things we have to think about is a very holistic approach to that student. Now, I think there's a lot of learning that says, from a student centric approach, we also have to recognize that not all those students are created equal. They come with different knowledge. They learn in different ways. They learn at different paces.

And so how we are advancing our individualization or adaptation of the learning model to better serve those students so that each individual is better able to, in fact, advance their life, improve their lot in life, increase their opportunity, but do so as a lifelong learner. I think it is still somewhat true, though, that students in many ways are the ones that we're serving. We don't like to call them customers at WGU either. But the notion of, we are an institution that is organized, developed, built. Everything we do is to better serve our students.

We know that when we better serve our students, we also better serve the employers and the workforce and the needs that they are intending to go meet. So that when we improve the quality of the education our students go through, that when we improve the learning and mastery of the competencies, that when we better align those competencies with the workforce demand, that even the quality of the students coming out of WGU is better meeting the needs of the employers in the workforce, too. So we do think about it as a type of lifelong or life changing experience itself, rather than singular transactions in a more retail or customer centric world.

DAN BERRETT: So how do you judge success? What are your metrics for success at WGU? Is it job placements? Is it happy employers? What is it that you look at?

SCOTT D. PULSIPHER: Yeah, we probably look at two key outcomes. One is fundamentally is, are an increasing number of the students who come to the university, are they achieving graduation? Are they completing their degrees? Just as a quick point there, it's important to understand that our students can't select courses. They ultimately have to register for a degree program.

And so they already start with an expected outcome that says the goal is to attain that degree. And so one of the first measures of a key outcome is how successful are we in increasing the percentage of the students who can come through WGU and ultimately graduate. Now, mind you, we keep the standard constant for all of them. The learning is held constant in a competency-based model. But the time can vary. The path can vary. But we ultimately want an increasing percentage of the students of being able to achieve that standard.

Now, we absolutely also think about the opportunity side of education. And that opportunity is attached more with, are you advancing the career path that you already were on as a working adult? Are you able to pursue a new opportunity in your preferred field of study or your field of work? And are those employers really satisfied with the quality of the graduates?

We do regularly survey our employers that are hiring our graduates. We survey the partners they're engaging with us on our teachers and our nurses that are placed. And we're always getting their input as to how well are these individuals assessed in terms of the quality of their performance, the success in kind of critical reasoning skills, communication, et cetera. And by all measures, they're ranking better than the national averages in some of the critical areas, in terms of overall success in the workforce.

DAN BERRETT: Now, that one element of workers able to progress in their careers, get raises, get promoted, what sorts of evidence have you found that WGU helps in that regard?

SCOTT D. PULSIPHER: In particular, we've knows that within two years or graduation, on average, our graduates will have an increase in their income of $10,600. That is actually a dramatic improvement when you consider the underserved population that we typically serve. This could be 20%, 25% increase in their earnings potential. Such that even as you measure it as a return on the investment in their degree for their degrees costing them $15,000 or so to graduate, within two years, you're already earning over $10,000 more than you were before.

When we take our graduate student body as a whole, in that same time period, they're, in fact, seeing total income gains that are approaching $14,000. So that includes both those who are advancing in their careers, if they already have one, as well as those who have pursued new careers. So we see really good evidence that we have a significant return on their investment in the WGU education.

DAN BERRETT: Now, you've been on both sides of the divide, the for profit and the university side. One question that a lot of our readers and viewers often have is, to what extent is the-- or the outcomes of their students and the economy-- really, the job or the responsibility of higher education? And I'm wondering what your thoughts are on that.

SCOTT D. PULSIPHER: You know, I think we recognize-- at least we're very cognizant of the fact-- that the student him or herself, they're a huge input to the overall outcome, their own sense of purpose and their own motivations, and their own academic behaviors, and their discipline. That's a huge factor in terms of, ultimately, the outcome they achieve.

What we do know is this, is that education is a great catalyst for people to change their lot in life. We know that when we can help individuals achieve their education goals, that is a great precursor to the likely success that they're going to be able to have in the workforce. The other unique thing about the students that we serve is that the large majority of them are working adults. They already know what it means to really work hard and to put lots of hours and effort and time and energy to even just provide for the simple things in life.

And so that when they can apply that to attain their degree, they already, then, bring with them a mentality that says, I know through hard work, commitment, dedication, that, that can translate to, also, success. We do think we can do more in terms of connecting education with workforce. That's why we start with designing our degree programs with workforce input, industry leaders who are helping us to define and map the competencies in our programs, helping drive inputs into the curriculum themselves, so that we know that we're also helping graduates master the competencies that are valued in the workforce.

That's pretty unique in higher education. It's very different than taking a pure academic approach to say, what is it that we want to teach, versus what is it that they need to master to be really effective in the workforce. And I know the studies that are out there, that there's 30, 35 percentage points difference between how employers view the readiness of college graduates and how college graduates view their readiness. Graduates, not surprisingly, think they're more ready than the employers have actually experienced.

We think that if we can connect employers and education earlier in the process, that you're more likely to close that gap as the graduates are entering the workforce.

DAN BERRETT: And our Western Governors enjoys a lot of bipartisan support, both on the local state level and the federal level, which made it somewhat surprising that the Office of the Inspector General to the Department of Ed, earlier this year, had some questions about the degree of interaction between WGU students and the professors, whether or not it's regular and substantive enough is kind of the term of art.

I'm wondering what your take on that is, and whether you think that's a fair standard to apply to WGU and to competency-based learning, in general.

SCOTT D. PULSIPHER: What we do know is that, that faculty engagement and faculty interaction is a significant contributor to student outcomes it's, I won't say sacrosanct, but it is definitely a key ingredient to the success of the WG model. And we know that students who have an engagement on a variety of different dimensions in terms of faculty engagement, whether it's a specific kind of course, whether it's tutoring on this particular area, and, of course, whether it's overall augmented instruction or program guidance and even course planning. But some of that also has to include counseling and advise. Because what we're trying to do for these students is interject 15 to 20 hours of academic work into a life that already has massive amount of demands from family commitments, work commitments, et cetera.

When we take all of those in a Clayton Christensen world of jobs to be done, we realize that the faculty has to be able to meet all those needs of these particular types of students. And so we see dramatic impact on the outcome. What we also realized some time ago is that when we try to take all that interaction and put it in one faculty member, the overall quality in interactions was less and less frequent than when we kind of unbundled the activities and developed a more disaggregated and a specialized faculty model.

When we take it in its whole, we actually think that there's much greater volume of interaction and more substantive interaction, when you take it in its entirety. And so we think that, ultimately, things will win out, that says when you look at the student outcomes and you see the engagement inputs, particular with faculty, that it will be very hard to say, that's a model that we want to actually turn away from. We love that innovation. We see how it's driving greater student outcomes to greater engagement, that ultimately, the kind of innovation will win the day, if you will.

DAN BERRETT: Great. Well, thank you very much for coming in today. Great to have you.

SCOTT D. PULSIPHER: I appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Dan Berrett writes about teaching, learning, the curriculum, and educational quality. Follow him on Twitter @danberrett, or write to him at dan.berrett@chronicle.com.