Tassels will be turned and caps will be thrown this month as graduations take place across the state. However, not all graduations align with this traditional schedule. Students from Western Governors University (WGU) have been graduating on their own schedule throughout the year. Nearly 800 Utah students have graduated from the nation’s largest teacher’s college between July 2022 and April 2023. This number represents a 6% increase from the prior year. 

In an effort to combat the nation’s teacher shortage, WGU is helping people pursue education degrees by offering a flexible, affordable option for working adults. WGU’s innovative competency-based online education model, that was started over 25 years ago by governors like Mike Leavitt, focuses on letting students progress through their courses as they demonstrate mastery.

WGU and other Utah efforts have led the country in diversifying the types of post-secondary choices adults are given to advance their education. Attending classes during the day isn’t an option for a lot of people. In 2023, higher education, particularly in fields where there is a workforce need, demands a flexible model that allows people to have jobs and families and still pursue degrees.

Opinion: Want a master’s degree that pays off? Come to WGU
If you have access to broadband and a computer, you can get a college degree. Here’s how

According to the most recent data released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 18% of public schools had one teaching vacancy, and 27% had multiple teaching vacancies. In the U.S., schools are expected to face a shortage of almost 200,000 teachers by 2025, with many districts being unable to retain teachers for more than five years, according to a 2021 performance audit of teacher retention released by the Utah Legislature.

The rising cost of earning a degree may be another contributing factor for fewer teachers entering the field. NCES data shows that the inflation-adjusted cost of college has nearly doubled, from about $15,000 a year in 1990 to $29,000 in 2020. In contrast, programs at WGU focused on initial licensure degrees can cost as little as $7,200 per year. Accredited, nonprofit WGU has committed to keeping costs lower to reduce the need for student borrowing, resulting in graduate debt that is about half the national average. 

In Utah, WGU has conferred nearly 7,000 degrees to educators from all parts of our state, and currently enrolls 2,400 Utah students in its School of Education.

So, as we celebrate traditional graduation ceremonies, let’s also celebrate Utah continuing to explore the many options for post-secondary education that will fit our ever-growing, diverse and exceptional citizens.

Ismar Vallecillos is the Western Governors University Northwest Regional Director of Operations.