I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around higher ed. This week I talk with the head of Western Governors University on where it’s headed next.

A pioneer institution’s big plans for the future.

Western Governors University celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, a good moment to look at how far it’s come — and, more importantly, where it’s headed.

As Scott Pulsipher, its president, told me recently, its goals are far from modest. “It’s not just about being an institution of higher education,” he said, but “the catalyst for that tidal effect of change” needed to reach tens of millions of Americans who could benefit from more-affordable, more-relevant, and more-flexible educational options.

This institution has been different since its inception, which I well remember. Back in 1995, I covered the first governors’ meeting in Las Vegas on the notion of an institution that could “deliver courses through computer networks, television, or other technologies.” In the university’s early years, I reported again and again on how so few students were enrolling.

The story is a lot different these days. With an enrollment of 132,000, an alumni base that should hit 300,000 graduates this year, and a reputation for using student data to improve persistence and completion, the nonprofit WGU has become an influential player in online education, competency-based education, and the emerging movement around digitally documenting learners’ skills. In recent years, it has also created an incubator and research arm, WGU Labs, and an investment fund, Juvo Ventures, to jump-start and develop companies and other organizations to improve educational access, quality, affordability, and outcomes.

All of which makes me fascinated to see where the institution is headed. Pulsipher, who has been president for six years, is not a traditional academic leader — his experience was in retail, tech, and banking — and our conversation reflected that. Two points stick with me: his reflection that WGU’s progress is not limited by “the false constraints around capacity” that affect other universities (such as selectivity, athletics, research, or a campus) and his analogy relating debt-financed models of paying for college to the emergence of car leasing. The latter gave consumers the feeling they could afford something that would otherwise seem out of reach, even if it wasn’t the most advantageous to them financially. Not a watertight comparison, but the gist is powerful.

“College is not for me” are the five most damning words Pulsipher can imagine. People who say that usually don’t mean they aren’t interested in education, he said. “What they’re really saying is, The cultural definition of college is not for me.”

Western Governors eschews most of the typical constraints. Its competency-based model offers flexibility for working adults, and its pricing — students pay tuition every six months — makes the institution more affordable than most, as long as students can keep up their progress.

But WGU stands out for its bigger ambitions. University leaders have talked about trying to enroll as many as a million students. Meanwhile, the prospect of influencing the educational pathways of tens of millions of students, many of them elsewhere, animates the institution’s planning for the future. To me, projects in these five areas seem the furthest along, the most compelling, or both.

Preparing students for college. “Flat-out readiness” for college can be one of the biggest barriers students face, Pulsipher said. WGU Academy, founded by the university in 2018 and now an independent organization, offers academic and other support to help students prepare for college-level work. About 20,000 students have enrolled, and only about one-quarter have completed the program, yet many of them fared better in college. While the academy has been primarily a gateway to WGU, the program has also been offered to clients of Goodwill Industries, military veterans and their spouses, and employees of McDonald’s. Pulsipher said he’s now hoping to create “white label” versions of the college-readiness program that other institutions could offer in their own names.

College financing. “You never want to use debt to finance an uncertain outcome,” said Pulsipher, whose background in finance makes him itchy for new, better models of paying for college. What WGU is cooking up is still unclear, but it probably won’t include the contentious elements of some of today’s income-share agreements. Aligning the needs of the student and the institution should include some element of “risk sharing,” Pulsipher told me, so the student “is not left holding the bag.”

Mentoring. The pandemic revealed the importance of supporting students who are learning at a distance. (I’ve certainly seen that with the growth of organizations like Mentor Collective and Beyond 12.) Mentoring is a fundamental piece of WGU’s educational model, with each student assigned a faculty mentor from the get-go. Given growing national interest in WGU’s online and mentoring models, Pulsipher said, developing a version of the mentorship program for other universities to adapt is on the table.

Student data. WGU collects a ton of information about its students and considers itself “a big data player,” Pulsipher said. While he didn’t get into specifics, he pretty much confirmed what I’d heard from the head of WGU Labs, Jason Levin, about a new data-analytics tool in development to compete with commercial products now in the market. When I met him in February in Salt Lake City, headquarters for WGU and WGU Labs, Levin told me that WGU Labs wants to create something less costly, easier to implement, and more effective than what’s out there today.

Digital credentials. WGU is one of many institutions and organizations working on ways for students to delineate and communicate, in machine-readable formats, the skills they’ve acquired through formal and informal education. On the other side of that equation, the university is taking a high-profile role in connecting those qualifications to the criteria employers are seeking for particular jobs, through the development of a Skills Library. It’s the kind of work that can get pretty geeky, pretty fast (as in “rich skill descriptors embedded with meta-data”). But through projects like the library and collaboration with the Open Skills Network, the university is advancing a “talent pipeline” movement that could eventually make hiring more efficient and surface potential opportunities for students before they finish their degrees. The return on investment for college grows, said Pulsipher, if students see value as they go.

A conversation on the ‘changing higher-ed ecosystem.

It’s been a wild couple of years for online education and the rest of the ed-tech landscape. Join me this afternoon (Wednesday) at 2 p.m. Eastern time as I talk with three experts — Gates Bryant, partner at Tyton Partners; Sharon Leu, executive in residence at JFFLabs; and Marni Baker Stein, provost at Western Governors University — about what’s important to know about shifting opportunities and markets, and what’s OK to ignore. Sign up here to see it live and pose questions, or watch later on demand.

A clarification. In last week’s newsletter, I wrote that the Rhodes Trust offers just 32 Rhodes Scholarships a year. That figure, as I should have specified, is just for the United States. The trust also provides more than 70 additional scholarships annually to students from other parts of the world.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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