Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.
Boyd Matheson: Higher education costs are soaring. Many students are leaving college buried in debt and ill-prepared to compete in a global economy. Elite schools seemed attainable only to the wealthy and the well-connected. Is there a better way to meet the needs of 21st-century students? Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University, talks higher education innovation on this episode of "Therefore, What?"
All right, we're very pleased to welcome into the studio today Scott Pulsipher. He has served as president of Western Governors University, the nation's premier nonprofit competency-based university, since 2016. He cultivates a student-first environment by using technology and data to improve learning outcomes, graduation rates, employment and overall student well-being. Prior to joining WGU, Scott led several technology-based, customer focus businesses, including Amazon, Sterling Commerce, which is now part of IBM, and other startups. He serves on multiple higher education and technology boards, including education co-chair for Committee for Economic Development, board member at the American Council on Education, advisory board member at the Presidents Forum, and a member of the American Workforce policy advisory board.
Scott, thanks for joining us today. Well, you've got an extraordinary story there at WGU. For our listeners who may not be as familiar with what it is you do and how you do it, just give us a quick thumbnail. How did it come about? And what's the focus?
Scott Pulsipher: Yeah, the namesake really comes about because the governors of 19 Western states decided, now 22 years ago, to establish an alternate model of higher education, if you will, that would particularly serve the underserved. And when they thought about the underserved in particular they looked at the adult learners, many of those that had some college but no degree and they knew that the traditional systems of higher education were not going to serve them really well. You know, that these individuals didn't have, well let me put it this way, that the majority of them were working full time or part time, they had children, that they could not fit the campus classroom-based model into their already busy lives. And so when they set about to form Western Governors University, they really thought about how do you leverage the internet? How do you think different about the pedagogical models that can allow individuals to fit the pursuit of their education into their already busy lives.
And so out of that emerged WGU. And so some of the hallmarks of WGU today are that we are the largest competency-based higher education university in the country, that we are 100 percent all online so that regardless of where you are you can learn independent of time and place. We've also focused on ensuring that the degrees that are pursued by the students that we serve directly align with our paths to opportunities and the advancement in their lives that they want to pursue.
And so fast forward 22 years and here we are, where WGU has over 115,000 full-time students, cumulatively, we have over 130,000 graduates and we'll graduate almost 35,000 students this year alone and we're recognized among employers, among other surveys like Gallup and Harris as one of the leading innovators in higher education today.
BM: Yeah, I was reading a Forbes story on WGU from a few years ago. And just one, the vision. Twenty-two years, to be looking at the kinds of models that would function in today's internet world is pretty extraordinary for those who first founded it. But I'm intrigued to have you drill down just a little bit. Scott, we were talking just before the show started in terms of this focus on the students and really maximizing their talents, their abilities and really creating that opportunity not just to get through a degree, but to make sure that then parlays into some upward mobility and real opportunity on the other end.
SP: That's right. I think one of the things that we start with a simple premise is that our purpose is to change the lives of individuals and families. And we believe that next to faith, honestly, that education is one of the single biggest catalysts to help them to do so. And for that to happen, we realized that you have to focus on probably three key things. One is you have to focus on the quality and relevancy of the learning. And what we mean is, is it relevant to the opportunities that you want to pursue, right? Are you going to come out with the learning and the outcomes that allow you to be ready for success in the workforce and the opportunities that you want to pursue? If that were a destination, I often like to say, is like, think of your favorite destination. And for us, I would say, Maui, that's the quality and relevancy of the learning that you want to achieve. That's the destination.
But the second thing you have to consider is the student experience and this is more like the journey to get there. It's one thing to fly in the last seat next to the lavatory in the plane. It's a wholly different thing to be in first class with Virgin Airlines or something like that. And the reality is that the student experience, we also endeavor to make it feel like it's completely individualized, that the whole of WGU was designed exclusively for that one student. And by doing so, what that results in is you're increasing the probability that every single person can succeed in achieving their degree.
And the third key thing that we focus on, is really the connection of the return on the investment. So we want to ensure that the ROI is strong, that the affordability and the low cost of it is something that increases the access for so many to be served. But it also has to have that return. Upon completion, that the promise of higher education is true, that if you attain education, it is the path to attaining opportunity and to a provident life. And so when we think about all of our measures for success, they're very different than what one might think of a traditional institution. We don't think about rankings. We don't think about our research prowess. We focus more on how well are we doing in progressing on pace the students enrolled, how well are we doing and helping them persist? How well are we doing in attainment, how well are our graduates getting employed and seeing income gains, etc? How strong is their well-being? We measure all of these things because ultimately we believe that is the customer that we're serving.
BM: That's fantastic. You know, I often go back to when we're talking higher education, so often we're teaching to the average, we're teaching to the middle or teaching to a test. I often like to cite the Air Force model where, you know, they were building cockpits to the average height and there is no average. You've really taken that to the extreme in terms of really creating this personalized curriculum, people being able to use experience they've already had, competency already acquired to really accelerate that process. Tell me some of the other things that you do to really tailor that to the unique needs of the individual students?
SP: One of the unique things and what is one of our hallmarks is that competency-based education design, and one of the core premises around the competency-based model is it allows you to personalize the learning for every individual. And what I mean is, every single student that comes in, they've already acquired a fair amount of knowledge from a variety of different things. They may have gone previously to college, they clearly have some work experience, etc. They may have just been well-read in a number of subjects, but a competency-based design allows them to accelerate through that which they already know and focus on those things that they have to give greater emphasis and study to because now it lets the time be the variable, right? That's very different than what you reference around a credit hour or a seat time model. Because in that model, regardless of whether you're the student who knows it and it could progress quickly, you still have to be there. And you may get the A in the class. But the challenge with that is the individuals who don't know it, they aren't getting the personalized attention they need. And so one of the other key things that we've done is that we focused on the faculty and the instructional model at WGU. And so instead of having a single faculty member do all things related to a course, or all things related to the instruction, we've kind of unbundled that into four different faculty roles. And it's really simple.
There's kind of three aspects, if you will, of the academic model. One is you have to design the curriculum, and so we have faculty that focus on the curriculum, meaning what are the learning outcomes that are part of the course in the program? When I say program, what I really mean is a major, a degree you're pursuing. What are those learning outcomes that need to be part of that so that they directly aligned with the competencies needed in the opportunities and work that you're going to pursue after completing it? But they focus on both designing those learning outcomes and identifying the content and the learning resources the student's going to utilize.
They also work on designing the assessments to effectively assess whether a student is proficient. That faculty is those that design it. Then you have the teaching and the instructional faculty. And that faculty, they're focused on ensuring that now they personalize and adapt the teaching to every single student. And there's two types of teaching faculty. There are those faculty that we call program mentors. This is as if you had a dedicated faculty member who has a master's degree or higher in your chosen field of study, and they are with you from day 1 until the day you graduate. They work with you specifically to define the plan that you're going to have for the courses that you need to complete. Where are you strong, and how can you accelerate through certain programs? When are you ready to take your assessment? How do you consider the feedback you're going to get on those assessments, etc. They are, if you will, your Sherpa. They are the ones there who are making sure that all aspects of you as an individual are compensated for in personalizing that journey.
Separate from the program faculty are the course faculty. This is now like, if you're in an undergraduate in business, I may have had some experience in marketing, but I've never done finance and accounting. I need some deep teaching and instruction around accounting. And so now you have subject matter experts who specifically teach accounting or they teach finance or they teach strategy, and those individuals really manage the subject matter at a course level. As you know, a degree is typically made up of 35 to 40 different courses, so you can actually during the life of your time with WGU, you'll always have the same faculty mentor but you may interact with 35, 40 different course instructors.
Lastly, we have separate evaluation faculty.These are independent faculty from those that teach and from those who design the curriculum. These are independent faculty who can objectively assess the performance of that student on an assessment. They can provide all the performance feedback and evaluation feedback that really then can objectively assess whether a student's proficient and therefore can complete and move on. So that is a very unique design that allows us to not teach to the average, teach to the individual.
BM: Yeah. Wow, that's fantastic. It's exciting to hear you go through that and just see how one, that makes sense. Why haven't we been doing it that way? And, of course, a lot of the university system was always based on there had to be a location, there had to be books, and there had to be people to be able to teach from the books.
SP: I used to say, Who are we kidding? Competency-based, in its design, is not new, because I think every single student like myself who went to college before, how often did you go to that class that you already knew the subject matter for? Hey, I got a freebie, I got this one. I'll come take the test, but I'm not sure I need to go to all the lectures. And I jokingly say that was competency-based. You already knew certain subjects, and you spent your time in the ones where you really had to study to do well.
BM: So as you've gone through this process, as you been at the helm here, I know through the history of WGU, you sort of have that, I don't know if I should call it an Iron Triangle. But you sort of have the federal level things. You've got the accreditations, and then you got kind of the elite universities that kind of controlled a lot of this. I'm sure they were none too happy with some of the innovation and disruption to the long-held models. What have been some of the challenges in moving through? Accreditation is always a big deal. Making sure things are right from a federal level is always a challenge with the regulatory regimes. How have you all navigated that and where does that all stand?
SP: Yeah, you know, I think really a lot of the credit goes to Bob Mendenhall, who was really the founding president of WGU, because we were initially accredited in 2001. And interestingly enough, that was done by four different regional accreditors all coming together to effectively create this. They even called it IRAC or something like that, Interregional Accrediting Commission, because 19 states were represented in the founding of WGU and they're like, oh, well, all of us have to then accredit the model that you're going to do. And in reality, they worked really, really well with the states who are doing this to say, no, this is innovation that we want to advance. And so therefore, we also need accreditors to think differently about how they evaluate this style and the model and the modes in which the education is being delivered. And so there was a lot of education, but quite frankly, in doing it in a very collaborative way with the accreditors, they started to realize that if you focus on the outcomes and you focus on the model and then the accountability to measure against those outcomes, it was going to be something that they could lend their support to.
2003 was the first year that we were accredited by the Northwest Commission, which is the accreditor for all the Utah public schools and BYU. And they arguably have really figured out how to be very proficient in evaluating a competency-based design and curriculum, it's a very different faculty model. So much so that even when, you know, the Inspector General for the Department of Education wants to say that we don't like this model, the accreditor says, No one has more expertise and experience with this design than we do. Let us show you how we've evaluated the quality, how we've evaluated the faculty student engagement, so they've been able to lend a lot of support. So then when it came to federal policy and alignment with statute and regulation.
When you have governors and an accreditor, as well as bipartisan support, it starts to help. This is innovation that we want. This is innovation that's working, they're holding themselves accountable to the student outcomes such that even if it's different, and it may not be totally aligned with exactly the definitions that were written 10 plus years ago, we want it to continue. So how do we then get the support that's needed. And in reality, we were always compliant with the regulation and statute and everything else. And ultimately, the accountability, though, around the innovation has helped us kind of persist through that. Whereas early on, Bob more than I definitely suffered many of the arrows around, hey, you're not doing it like we want it to be done. You don't look like we look like, so, and he had the wherewithal to say, we're okay with being misunderstood for a long time.
BM: Yeah, that's great, great insight there. So as you look to the future, what do you see as some of the big challenges for you as you continue to march this forward?
SP: Yeah. One of the fundamental challenges is around reinvigorating the promise of higher education for so many. You've probably seen it and many of your listeners have surely seen that in many ways, the value of it is being questioned to some degree. They're worried about the perception that's related to whether it's threatening other things that we hold dear, whether that's free speech or whether it's rights and privileges that exist around the students and their experiences. In reality, we know that fundamentally we need more and more of the Americans and more and more individuals having access to high quality education. One of the big things that we see is that we have to scale these innovative models much even beyond their current scale, because in the U.S. alone there are probably 40 to 50 million adults that do not have access to higher education and to the postsecondary credentials that they need to be able to be in the workforce of the future. And so we're going to need more innovation, not less. We're going to have to continue to push the frontiers around access and affordability. We're going to have to continue to push the frontiers around the credential model. Is the bachelor's degree the only thing to think about as a credential? Are there different credentialing models?
I think we'll even push the boundaries as to who are the providers of this education, such that the notion of a university itself may vary over time, and we'll see new providers, employers playing a part in that, etc. And so we're encouraged by the fact that we, as well as other institutions, are very aggressively trying to solve for the future of work. And how does learning and postsecondary education play a role in bringing that about.
BM: That's fantastic. I want to ask you, you've done an extraordinary job in creating a culture and a connection. I think a lot of people think, OK it's online. So there's really no shared values. There's no common vision, there's no football team to cheer for, you know, nothing that really brings it together. But I noticed in one survey, I can't remember who actually did that survey, but they went through and that your students actually have a higher affinity and feel more connected to WGU than someone who goes to a traditional four-year school does to their alma mater in the end. How do you explain that?
SP: Yeah, that's right. I do like to say that we are undefeated for 20 years. So you know when you never play you never lose, right? And it costs us a lot less in budget too. So Gallup actually is the one who did that survey. So Gallup has long through their Gallup-Purdue Index, through their assessment, basically, of graduates' engagement, their well-being, etc. Gallup has found that, if I get the statistics right, and I'm pretty certain I know them pretty well, of our graduates, 72 percent of them will say that they will recommend someone else to WGU. And that compares to a national average of only 39 percent. Now there are two critical factors that I think are the big drivers of that. There was the joke made when they first did the event around this Gallup survey. And one of the education press individuals said, Wait, how did you get that without a football team, without any of that kind of natural affinity that you have around sports?
And there are two key factors that came out. First and foremost, that you are seven times more likely to recommend your alma mater to someone else if you answer affirmatively that my school was worth the cost. And on that same measure, graduates from WGU, 74 percent of them will say that WGU was worth the cost. And that's 30 percentage points higher than graduates of other institutions. And so it's worth their costs. Our bachelor's will complete on average in about two years and four months for total cost of about $15,000 to $16,000. They're going to earn more than $20,000 per year within four years of graduation. The ROI on that is really strong, and then they add also answer very strongly that it prepared me for success in the workplace. For employers, 91 percent say that our graduates exceed their expectations. So they're really feeling like man, this really readied me for success.
The other key ingredient to answering would you recommend it is that you're 2.6 times more likely to recommend your alma mater if you answer affirmatively that you had faculty that encouraged your dreams and aspirations. So if you go back to what we were talking about in our faculty design, when you have a mentor who basically loves you like a second parent, right, and when I talked to our faculty too, they talk about their graduates like they're their own kids and they know every single one of them. And sometimes for the first time they'll meet each other in person at graduation or commencement. That is a hallmark of the WGU way. We are here to care for you, the whole student, so that you can be successful in your academic pursuits, because that is the pathway to your provident life, and when you have that experience, guess what? This affinity is really, really high. And I will say one big benefit for WGU is that 68 percent of our new students who enrolled last year were referred. So it totally changes our cost model. It makes it much more affordable for us to continue to manage the growth when the demand is a function of the quality of the experience.
BM: I want to go back for just a minute, when you said that they felt like they had that leader, that teacher, that professor who really encouraged them to pursue their dreams and that love of learning. I've always said the most important thing you get out of higher education is learning how to learn and learning to love learning. Because of the pace of change in the world today, if you aren't constantly learning, so many people graduate and they set all the learning and the books aside and they kind of get stuck there. But you seem to be developing this culture and this feeling of continual learning, perpetual learning, lifelong learning. It seems to be connected in some way to how those teachers and administrators are connecting with students in terms of their passions, their goals, what they want to pursue.
SP: Yeah I think you're exactly right too, which is one of the key outcomes of a postsecondary education is the capacity for additional learning or ongoing learning. That's even evidenced in some of the studies that show that while some skills-based credentials may get you that great first job, the lifelong opportunities come about because of your capacity for learning, your critical reasoning abilities, your analytical horsepower, etc. And there is little doubt that the future model of learning as it integrates with opportunity. It is a lifelong learning loop. That's kind of how we reference it. This idea that the one-and-done model is going to wane over time and what's going to emerge is that you need to actually continually be learning, and out of that learning you also need to be achieving certificates and credentials that ready you for the next opportunity in your overall traverse in your life. And with that model, we're also trying to ensure that WGU can deliver on that because it's, yes, you'll come and get a bachelor's degree. But you may get a sub-degree credential, and then that has to stack into a bachelor's degree and then even as a graduate, you may come back and get reskilled. If you demonstrate over life that capacity for learning, that is the way in which you can ensure that you always have growth and development and that the other things like income, prosperity and well-being, other things, come about because you're always this curious, learning-focused individual and we do invest heavily in the general education aspects, the liberal education, interdisciplinary studies because we know over time that creates the most prosperous individual in the workforce.
BM: Well, Scott, as we come down the homestretch, the program is "Therefore, What?" and so we get to ask the "Therefore, What?" question. People have been listening for 25 minutes now, what do you hope people come away from listening to this? What do you hope they think different, what you hope they do different as a result of listening today?
SP: Yeah. I've thought about that somewhat, knowing your podcast and knowing that critical question, because I think that's right. And here's the thing, I think, is the so what or the "Therefore, What?" I think the old model of higher education was built around the premise of we're going to design it this way. And if you're an individual that's successful in that way, then you're going to be successful in your life. We think differently. I think it is possible that an institution can actually adapt to the individual. That if you start with inherent belief that every individual can learn, every individual has inherent worth, and that our endeavor as an institution of learning is to personalize and adapt that model so that individual has every possibility of being successful in their pursuit.
We believe that it's our institution's responsibility to ensure that we dramatically can increase the probability that any individual, from all walks of life, from all ethnic backgrounds, from all income levels, regardless of who you are, that you carry with you inherent worth, that you carry with you that innate capacity for learning, and that we are going to create a model by which your traverse through it is now going to be personalized for you, for your success.
And we do start with that premise that education is the surest path to opportunity and we can change lives by making sure that you're providing the opportunity for them to be the best version of themselves. And that's very different, I think, than the traditional thinking around higher education. And it's been around, not just in the last 20 years, the model of higher education has been around for centuries. And it's pretty stuck and it's not able to really personalize, and so I think that's one of the big takeaways, that it is possible to help every individual be the best version of themselves.
BM: That's fantastic. One of my "Therefore, Whats?" from from this session today is WGU's incredible ability to, even with 115,000 students, to still tailor it to the one. That's an extraordinary achievement and I think a model that everyone should take a good hard look at. So Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University, thanks so much for being us being with us today on "Therefore, What?
Remember, after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is "Therefore, What?" Make sure to subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today and be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on Deseretnews.com/Tw and subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor at the Deseret News, thanks for engaging with us on "Therefore, What?"