Here's how Western Governors University Ohio is disrupting higher education

Jeff Bell
Rebecca Watts, chancellor, Western Governors University Ohio

After studying at or working for major universities in three states, Rebecca Watts knows plenty about conventional learning models in higher education. While working well for some, they often miss the mark for adult learners trying to balance a job and family life with the rigors of completing coursework for a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

That’s why Watts seems so happy with her current higher education gig. As chancellor of Western Governors University Ohio, she oversees programs that take a different approach—competency-based education—to help working adults earn degrees that can help them advance in their current employment or start a new career in a different field.

WGU’s competency-based courses focus on measuring student learning rather than class time. Students study and learn on their own schedules and advance to the next class as soon as they demonstrate mastery of course materials. That means there is no waiting for slower-to-learn classmates to catch up, as tradition holds.

As a result, WGU says students can complete a degree faster than in a conventional program, often less than three years for a bachelor’s degree. All WGU’s courses are online and on-demand, Watts says, and they are designed with input and feedback from industry employers.

“I’ve long been a fan of the competency-based (approach),” she says. “By design, all the things we do are targeted to get people to and through what they need for a new career or advancement in their career path.”

WGU has deployed the competency-based online model since its founding in 1997 by governors of 19 states, most in the American West. With strong support from Gov. John Kasich, the Ohio Department of Higher Education established a partnership with WGU Ohio last June.

While the nonprofit university receives no state operating or capital funding, its affiliate status allows its students to qualify for financial aid such as Ohio College Opportunity grants and other state-backed grants and scholarships.

That action by state government was part of a broader look being taken at the competency-based model in Ohio, says Michael Snider, a higher education consultant and former provost at Columbus State Community College.

A statewide committee is examining the possibility of developing competency-based programs at public two-year colleges and four-year universities. Snider says Sinclair Community College in Dayton has already piloted some programs that offer both a traditional and competency-based course delivery approach. In addition, Columbus State has been consulting with Sinclair on developing similar courses.

Four-year universities are also at the table, with Snider saying there is interest there in competency-based master’s degree programs.

Western Governors is recognized as a national leader in the field, Snider notes, with its reputation so firmly established that the Ohio Association of Community Colleges has had a credit transfer agreement with WGU since 2016. It allows community college graduates to seamlessly transfer their course credits to WGU and receive a tuition discount there.

But Snider and Watts say the WGU competency-based model is not meant to supplant traditional course delivery or bricks-and-mortar campuses.

“We believe it’s important to be part of an array of (higher-ed) opportunities in the state,” Watts says. “The WGU model is uniquely designed for working adults. Other colleges and universities meet the needs of other folks and where they are (in their learning).”

Prior to joining WGU Ohio last year, Watts had served as an administrator at the University of Wyoming, Ohio Department of Higher Education and Ohio University. In those positions, she saw that adult learners, many of whom had some college but no degree, needed a better and more affordable way to fit college into their lives.

As for tuition, WGU undergraduates pay about $7,000 a year, while master’s candidates pay $7,300 annually. Those amounts are well below in-state tuition charges at Ohio’s public colleges and universities.

WGU has 60 degree programs, all clustered in the fields of business, information technology, K-12 teacher education and health care professions, especially nursing. The average student is 37 years old.

“We’re not all things to all people,” Watts says, “There is a big burden on students to identify which program is going to provide the most success long term in a career pathway.”

She says WGU employs strategic partnership managers who connect with employers. They work to identify soft spots and gaps in workforce skills and communicate those to the university’s curriculum designers.

Western Governors also seeks workforce skills advice from the members of national and state advisory boards, including one in Ohio.

Western Governors already has more than 2,700 graduates in the state, with most getting their degrees before WGU became an Ohio affiliate last year. They include Laura Rush, who earned an MBA from WGU in 2016 while employed as a research administrator at Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Rush, whose degrees already included a doctor of veterinary medicine and Ph.D. in cancer biology, felt an MBA would help her in areas such as leadership, change management, organizational structures and finance. Her priorities were to find a program designed for adult learners with 100 percent of the courses online and scheduling flexibility to complete a degree on her own schedule.

“I saw WGU’s competency-based model,” she says, “and that was a great thing for me. I could rely on my experiences to finish classes and earn a degree quickly.” Working at her own pace, Rush completed her MBA program in about a year and a half. She now serves as director of academic research services at the OhioHealth Research Institute in Columbus.

“I really appreciate what WGU did for me at this stage of my career,” Rush says, giving high marks to the support from faculty, quality of the course content and affordability.

Western Governor’s approach to serving adult learners has also impressed Fred Manning, an executive vice president at Huntington National Bank. One of his top managers, Senior Vice President Bobbi Laakso, earned a bachelor’s degree in business management last year from WGU.

Manning says he had encouraged Laakso, who had three years of college but no degree, to go back to school to further her career development. To do that, she needed a flexible program to accommodate her work schedule and responsibilities as a mother of three children. Working during the workday lunch hour and on evenings and weekends, Laakso completed 30 classes in 50 weeks to earn her WGU degree. “It’s amazing what she was able to accomplish with what was already on her plate,” Manning says, adding Laakso’s WGU experience has broadened her business perspective and positioned her to take on additional responsibilities at Huntington.

Laakso says Western Governors’ affordable tuition, flexible scheduling and accelerated pace toward completing a degree were all important in her decision to enroll.

“The degree is very relevant to the position I hold now,” she says. “There are so many people in the same position I was in—some college but never having finished,” Laakso says. “It’s going to make Ohio better that WGU has a presence here.”

Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.

20 S. Third St., Suite 210, Columbus 43125

Business: Nonprofit university that offers degrees in business, information technology, K-12 teacher education and health professions.

Chancellor: Rebecca Watts

Employees: 130

Western Governors University Ohio