Reflections on the First Year of a New-Model University

Joyce Hesselberth for The Chronicle

October 01, 2012
Reflections on the First Year of a New-Model University

Joyce Hesselberth for The Chronicle

Western Governors University Texas, where I am chancellor, is not an easy institution to describe to your mother—or even your hip sister. It just doesn't fit the profile of most traditional universities, even the newer for-profit and online ones. It brings the work of a national, online, nonprofit university into a state, and it embraces a competency-based education model that is rarely found on an institutionwide level.

Even for seasoned educators, WGU Texas feels different. And in a year that has seen flat or declining enrollments at many traditional colleges, reports critical of for-profit institutions, and continuing debate over the perils and promise of online learning, our story, and our growth, has been unique. As we hit our one-year anniversary, it's worth taking a few moments to reflect on the ups, downs, challenges, and champions of this newest state model. I'd offer three key reflections on lessons we've learned:

Building a strong foundation. Western Governors was founded as a private, multistate online university 15 years ago by governors of Western states. Texas is only the third state model within the system, following WGU Indiana and WGU Washington. Before our opening, leaders of Western Governors took time to make sure the idea of this state university made sense for Texas. The intent was to add high-quality, affordable capacity to the state's higher-education system, particularly for adult learners, and to localize it for Texans and their employers.

This outpost was poised to "go big" in one of the biggest of states, offering more than 50 bachelor's and master's degrees in high-demand fields in business, education, information technology, and health professions. WGU's online-learning model allows students to progress by demonstrating what they know and can do rather than by logging time in class accumulating credit hours.

In meetings across the state, the idea of WGU Texas gained the support of the state's political, legislative, and higher-education leaders, as well as the Texas Workforce Commission and the Texas Association of Community Colleges. Rushing to roll out was not the goal; entering the education ecosystem with solid support of the model was.

I came on board as chancellor in December 2011. Having served on WGU's Board of Trustees for six years, I knew the model, and having graduated from and worked for the University of Texas at Austin, I knew Texas.

In the past six months, we have hired key staff and faculty, formed a state advisory board, opened a main office and training center in downtown Austin, launched our first wave of student outreach, begun working with employers in different metro regions, and started connecting online and on the ground with students. After absorbing WGU's 1,600 existing Texas students, WGU Texas grew by more than 60 percent in this first year, entering August 2012 with more than 3,000 students.

In about eight weeks, we'll hold our first commencement in Austin, celebrating the graduation of more than 400 students. We're moving quickly now, but it's the firm foundation of outreach, support, and systems that served us well as we took on the next two challenges:

Confronting conflation. WGU Texas is laser-focused on a student population that is typically underserved. We see ourselves as a good fit for adult learners who need an affordable, quality, and flexible learning model, particularly working students who want to attend full time. We are especially focused on the more than three million Texans who have some college and no credential—students like Jason Franklin, a striving adult learner in a high-demand IT field who had gone as far as he could in his career without a degree. He earned a bachelor's and a master's degree through Western Governors, and is now working on a master's degree from WGU Texas.

We'd like to help these students reach their goals and get on a solid career and lifelong-learning path.

However, in offering a new model like ours, you quickly find the conflation problem a challenge. Some assume that you're trying to compete for the fresh-from-high-school graduates who want a campus experience. Others assume that because you're online, you must be a for-profit university. Still others put all online education programs in the same bucket, not distinguishing at all between a traditional model online and a deeply personalized, competency-based learning model.

Fighting conflation by clearly differentiating and properly positioning our university has been essential. We've had to be clear—and to repeat often—that our approach is designed for adult learners who have some college and work experience. We're absolutely OK with telling prospective students, partner colleges, and state-policy leaders that for 18- to 20-year-olds looking to embark on their first college experience, we are probably not the right fit. In fact, first-time freshmen make up less than 5 percent of our student population.

The for-profit conflation has been even more interesting. Many people assume that any online university is for-profit. We are not. And even when we assure them that our nonprofit status keeps us deeply committed to low tuition—we have a flat-rate, six-month-term tuition averaging less than $3,000 for full-time students, which our national parent WGU has not raised for four years—they have a hard time getting their minds around it.

Others are sure we are nothing more than an online version of the traditional model, relying entirely on adjunct faculty. When we explain our history, learning model, and reliance on full-time faculty members who specialize in either mentoring or subject matter, it takes some time. But once people embrace the idea of a personal faculty mentor who takes a student from first contact to crossing the graduation stage, they warm quickly to the model.

Synching with the state's needs. While forming the foundation and fighting conflation are important, I'd say the key to WGU's state-model successes is the commitment to synching with the economic, educational, and student ecosystem of the state.

On the economic level, we've been able to work directly with employers eager to support our university, advance our competency-centered model, and hire our graduates. Educationally we have been fortunate to have smart and strategic partners that have guided our entry into the state. For example, our Finish to Go Further transfer program, in partnership with the Texas community-college association, motivates students to complete their associate degrees before transferring. This strategy supports the goal of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board of significantly improving postsecondary access and success in Texas.

In addition, WGU Texas is working with the coordinating board to support innovations in competency-based education, and we've joined the statewide college-completion-policy board. The higher-education community understands that WGU Texas is here to add to the state's opportunities for adult learners.

Finally, what has been both essential and inspirational for us has been synching with the students. We listen as they share their compelling stories, engage them in a personalized learning model, challenge them to bring their best, connect with them on social media, and welcome them to BBQ dinners all over the state. Synching with these students online and on the ground brings this work home. We take their journeys seriously and are constantly wowed by the passion and purpose they bring to WGU Texas.

Clarification (11:40 a.m.): This article was changed to include the full name of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Mark David Milliron is chancellor of WGU Texas.