The global pandemic and resulting uncertainty in the job market has led many people to consider returning to school to earn a master’s degree. Some hope to improve their skills and increase their employment prospects or advance in their current job. This has put a renewed focus on higher education costs — and whether graduate school is worth the investment of time and money.

A report in The Wall Street Journal highlighted the high cost and low return on investment (ROI) of many elite master’s degree programs. A story in U.S. News and World Report also tackled the subject last year in a story that asked whether graduate school was worth the expense.

While it’s true that many master’s degree programs can be overpriced and don’t always lead to well-paying jobs, Western Governors University’s College of Business is driving down the cost of a graduate education and delivering a substantial ROI for students.

In fact, new data published in The Wall Street Journal shows that WGU’s MBA had one of the best ROIs in the country.

On average, WGU College of Business graduate students finish their degree program in just 18 months for a total cost of around $14,000. This can result in a significant increase in their earning potential. At $115,000, the median salary of MBA graduates is 75% higher than that of someone with a bachelor’s degree, Fortune reports. Graduates of WGU’s online MBA program report an average salary increase of $16,200.

The combination of a shortened time to graduation and reasonable tuition, together with higher earning potential, is what landed WGU’s MBA on the Wall Street Journal list.

What’s more, a new one-year accelerated option from WGU cuts the time it takes to earn an MBA down to just 12 months, for a cost of $9,060.

How do we keep higher education costs down? For one thing, our pioneering, competency-based learning model allows students to accelerate their completion time and save substantially on the cost of tuition.

We build courses aligned with in-demand industry skills and ask students to demonstrate competency in those areas. Students learn and demonstrate what they know and can do rather than spending time in class to accumulate credit hours. After proving their competency, they move on to the next course. Since we charge students a flat tuition rate for every six-month term rather than charging per course, students can save dramatically as they accelerate their education.

This approach creates a personalized learning path where students can speed up or slow down, spending more time on subjects they need to practice and moving quickly through topics where they have prior knowledge.

Our 100% online-learning delivery model also enables us to keep tuition rates low, as we don’t have the expenses associated with operating a brick-and-mortar campus environment, which is consistently in the billions, according to The Atlantic. The considerable expense involved in operating campus facilities is prompting some colleges to reevaluate their use of physical spaces, with the University of Akron announcing earlier this year that it was thinking of selling or otherwise repurposing the use of up to 1 million square feet of its buildings and land.

Because WGU can offer high-quality learning experiences to students at scale, without the added expenses a traditional university incurs from research and campus operations, we’re able to hire top-notch staff and still charge less for tuition. As a result, we can deliver a first-class, student-centric education at a much lower cost than other institutions.

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As technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace, skills that were once relevant for decades are now obsolete. This means employees will have to learn new skills an average of seven times during the course of their career.

To remain viable, colleges and universities will have to expand their target populations beyond undergraduate-age students by serving more adult learners. They’ll need to rethink the idea of traditional degree programs by offering micro-credentials and certificates. And they’ll have to adopt creative approaches that address rising higher education costs head-on while working more effectively for a majority of students.

WGU has been at the forefront of this innovation for 25 years. With a high ROI on our master’s degrees in business and other fields, it’s not surprising that more than three-fourths of WGU students say their education was worth the cost, which is more than twice the national average — and 96% of graduates would recommend the school to others.

Dr. Ted Cross is Associate Dean and Academic Program Director at the nonprofit Western Governors University’s College of Business. Dr. Victor Aluise is Vice President and Dean at the nonprofit Western Governors University’s College of Business.

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