Western Governors University and Competency-Based Education (Distance Learning)


Western Governors University (WGU) was formally established in 1996 by the governors of 19 western states. From its inception it was committed to delivering all of its programs through distance technologies and to graduating its students only on the basis of their demonstrated competency. It is today the only regionally accredited university in the United States to award its degrees exclusively on this basis.

Developing the university and proving its viability, however, have not been easy. The enthusiasm surrounding its launching in 1996 rapidly gave way to the hard realities of establishing a new educational paradigm. Within five years, after accreditation seemed slow in coming and enrollments in the new university even slower, many in the higher education establishment wrote WGU off as a failed experiment. Some even breathed a sigh of relief that the claims of competency-based education could be written off. But eight years after its formal incorporation, WGU is very much alive. It has received national accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council (2001) and unprecedented regional accreditation by four of the nation’s regional accrediting associations.1 No other institution in the history of American higher education has received multi-regional accreditation, and given the complexities of such reviews, WGU achieved that milestone in a remarkably short time. By January 2005 the university had an enrollment just over 3,200 students and was growing by more than 200 students a month.


The concerns that motivated 19 governors to sponsor a new university along radically different lines were national issues, not local ones. They were concerns about broad public policy then, and if anything they have become more urgent since. Chief among the governor’s concerns were these:

• That the rising cost of higher education combined with population growth in their states would outrun the money supply for more brick-and-mortar campus solutions.

• That their states’ colleges and universities were producing graduates whose skills were uneven, unreliable, and insufficient to meet their future needs for a highly skilled workforce.

• That their states’ higher education officials were unresponsive to their concerns about these matters.

In launching WGU, the governors saw distance delivery not only as a means of combating costs, but of expanding access. Indeed, issues of access intersected with all of their concerns. It was often prohibitively costly for remote students in the west to travel regularly to a campus, let alone to live there. Those students, often older and “nontraditional,” were not well-served by traditional campus expectations and services. And poor and prohibitively costly service that locked out these students meant that their state economies could not benefit from their developed potential. In response to similar concerns about access from states, employers, and citizens across the country, distance learning has since seen explosive growth.

For the founding governors, distance learning was not merely the lifeline for students living in remote locations. They understood that it reflected a sea-change in Americans’ fundamental attitudes toward and participation in higher education. Both remote students and those living on or near campuses who simply want to dissociate themselves from classrooms are redefining the higher education experience. Not since GIs returning to college after World War II have the demographics of American higher education been so transformed.

Already by the turn of this century, nearly 75% of all undergraduates were in some way nontraditional. More than 50% were financially independent and nearly 50% attended college part-time, while nearly 40% were over 25 years of age and worked full time, and more than a quarter had dependents (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2004). And finally, by the time these students earn their bachelor’s degrees, at least 60% of them will have attended more than one institution (Business-Higher Education Forum, 2004). The western governors foresaw these trends and sought to design a university that would help to lead them.

contributing factors

American demographics can only accelerate the importance of distance learning in the future of our higher education system. For instance, when Social Security was established in the early 1930s, life expectancy was 61, and there were 16 workers for every retiree. By 2004 life expectancy had reached the upper seventies, there were only three workers for every retiree, and the U.S. economy was heading toward two workers per retiree. The consequences for higher education are significant. As the Business-Higher Education Forum (2004) observes:

The production of skilled workers from higher education is not adequate to meet the needs of the future. By 2020 the U.S. economy will require 12 million to 14 million more skilled workers than are being produced today.(p. 10)

There are only four ways to meet this need: import skilled workers from other nations; attract more Americans into the higher education system and train them more effectively than we have done historically; keep the Baby Boom generation working longer; and make younger people more productive in the workforce sooner. All four of these potential solutions will require distance learning in order to be successful, especially given the rapidity with which skills must be upgraded in a technological society. Only anytime, anyplace learning delivered in rich, multi-sensory formats on demand can have a chance to meet this need, because neither these students nor their employers will have the time, money, or patience to have them sit in classrooms while the clock ticks. Employers will instead create educational enticements for young people to join their firms and older workers to remain with them, much like the military now offers. Workers at every level will engage in continuous learning, some of it degree related, some of it not. And the demands of time on all students at every age will make them want four things from their education providers, as Arthur Levine (2002) observes: “convenience, service, high quality, and low cost” (p. 4).

The weakness in this vision is the weakness of the current American educational system itself, and by extension its distance learning derivatives. It is precisely this weakness that the western governors sought to address by designing WGU as a competency-based institution, and the reasons it will address them are embedded in symptoms such as these:

• Comparisons with other developed nations consistently show that American secondary schools prepare students less well than those of other developed nations in at least three areas critical to our national future: mathematics, reading, and science. The most recent comparisons of 15-year-olds’ performance rank the United States 19th in mathematics, 15th in reading, and 14th in science (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2001).

• When these students enter college, many of them are still unprepared to succeed. The California State University system reports, for instance, that more than half its incoming freshmen need remediation in English, mathematics, or both before being able to undertake college-level studies.

• Ironically, among continuing college students, the National Survey of Student Engagement reports that they can earn grades of B or better by spending only 10-15 hours a week on homework.

• And if the work is light, grade inflation rewards them anyway. It has become so ubiquitous on campuses across the country that the metrics of student performance are at risk of losing all credibility. Princeton University recently became one of the first institutions in the country (perhaps the first) to limit the proportion of As that can be given in courses. Dartmouth College recently acknowledged the problem, but has yet taken no steps to resolve it: The average GPA at Dartmouth in 1969 was 2.7; today it is 3.32. In 1987-1988, 37% of undergraduate grades were A or A+; by 2002-2003 48% were A or A+ (Green, 2004, p. 37).

Some might argue that such a list is not representative. Indeed much good education occurs every day on our nation’s campuses. But few on the inside of higher education would deny that too many American students come to college under-prepared, engage minimally with their studies when they are there, and come away with grades higher than they deserve. The founding governors of Western Governors University believed that distance learning by itself cannot address these weaknesses. It is, after all, merely an instrument of delivery, and it will continue to reflect the culture from which it comes until that culture changes.

Indeed, in one important respect it makes the problem worse. Distance learning is driving a fundamental shift in the locus of responsibility for higher education from institutions to individual students, what the Business-Higher Education Forum (2004) calls “deinstitutionalization” (p. 13). Students today can cherry pick through the Internet whatever combination of courses they want from dozens of different institutions, package them the way they want, mine them for what they want, and go on to the next self-determined learning experience. The idea of a coherent college experience under the tutelage of caring faculty members in the company of inquisitive, like-minded friends around a seminar table has in the past 10 years alone been shattered for all but a small minority of college students.


The failure of the American academy to hold students to high expectations and to evaluate them honestly reinforces the trend in our society toward external professional certification, itself a partial reflection of the rising demand for educational accountability. While external examinations have a long tradition in fields like medicine and law, today the practice is also spreading to most other professional fields. Whether legitimate or not, the subtext in all such cases is that whatever formal education the aspirant may have had, and however good the record of that education may be, it is inadequate proof of competency. Only external assessment can validate what the candidate knows and can do.

It is altogether likely that this tendency toward objective validation will continue to spread throughout our society. Higher education will ignore it at its peril. For when an educational system proves so completely that it no longer prepares students adequately for college study, that it cannot get them to take their studies seriously when they get to college, and that it lacks the integrity to evaluate the work they do there honestly, the logical alternative is to remove that system from the control of those traditionally responsible for it. Accountability will insist on higher standards.

Perhaps above all, it was accountability that led the western governors to the creation of a university based on valid, reliable, and pervasive competency assessment. Peter Smith (2004), writing in Change magazine, talks about the need to create throughout the American academy a “culture of evidence” (p. 34). Above all, Western Governors University has aimed to create exactly that culture.

wgu today

The university offers 35 degree programs leading to associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the areas of business, information technology, and education. More than half its current enrollments are in programs related to the preparation and advancement of K-12 teachers, the result in part of nearly $14 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education to develop national, online, competency-based teacher certification programs. The average age of WGU students is 40. More than 70% work full time, 25% are persons of color, and they come from all 50 states. Because of the difficulty in locating secure testing sites to administer its competency examinations, the university has made no effort as yet to attract or serve foreign students, though eight other countries are currently represented in its student body.

The university operates year-round, enrolling new students on the first of every month in six-month-long semesters. Those students progress only by passing the series of competency assessments associated with their degrees. These will take a variety of forms, but always include a mixture of objective examinations, essays, and performance tasks. Objective examinations are computer scored; others are evaluated by external graders using rubrics established by the university. Students are required to take their assessments at secure testing centers where they show picture identification. In addition, bachelor’s and master’s students complete a final capstone study (with an oral defense before a faculty committee) that demonstrates the overall integration of degree competencies.

In preparing for their assessments, students may use a variety of learning resources, including distance courses available from other institutions with whom WGU contracts, commercially available modules and learning objects, and independent study materials—all depending on the student’s learning needs, background, current strengths and weaknesses, and all selected in close consultation with their faculty mentors. They receive neither credits nor grades for the learning resources they use or for their WGU assessments, though all degrees are designed to be comparable in length to similar degrees at other institutions. The standard for passing assessments is performance equivalent to a grade of B or better in traditional systems, meaning (in language adapted from Harvard University’s definition of a B grade):

…the student has been fully engaged with the learning materials and activities necessary to master the competencies, has demonstrated the skills needed to utilize the competencies, and has produced work that indicates command of the competencies. (quoted from the Western Governors University official transcript)

WGU’s administrative headquarters are located in Salt Lake City, Utah, and while some faculty work out of the local offices there, most are scattered across the country, from New Hampshire to Hawaii. The faculty serve as mentors for their students .A number of specially trained online seminar leaders, often alumni of WGU’s master’s programs, introduce students to the competency model and lead them through the introductory (and only required) course, Education Without Boundaries. Thereafter, the students’ personal mentors take over and guide them through the rest of their programs. The mentors do not teach courses—if students need courses to prepare for their assessments, they take them from WGU’s partnering institutions.At least 80% of a faculty member’s work involves direct student advisement, and for some it is virtually 100%. In addition, more senior mentors help to develop degree competencies and assessments, identify learning resources for students to use and align them to degree competencies, and conduct periodic quality and effectiveness reviews of their programs. All personnel, both faculty and staff, work on an ‘at will’ basis. The university offers neither tenure nor long-term contracts.

One of the most important quality control features of the university’s design is its use of oversight councils. Each degree area—business, information technology, and education—has a presiding Program Council made up of WGU senior faculty, faculty from other institutions, and professional practitioners. Councils typically number six to nine members and represent a broad range of views on the fields for which they are responsible. The program councils are responsible for designing the overall structure for each of their degrees, for establishing (with the aid of other outside subject matter experts) the specific competencies that will be required for graduation, and for maintaining their currency and quality by overseeing the required biannual evaluations of their programs.

The WGU Assessment Council works in concert with the program councils to ensure academic quality by exercising separate but parallel oversight. Consisting of nine of the nation’s most prominent experts in assessment, the council oversees and approves the assessments that will be used to measure the competencies required for each degree, and it participates with the program councils in their biannual program evaluations. Since WGU now develops most of its own assessments (as opposed to using third-party instruments, as it did originally), the external oversight of the Assessment Council is especially important in assuring the validity, reliability, and appropriateness of the measurements that are used.

This system of checks and balances, triangulating on quality assurance from the perspectives of program faculty, program councils, and the assessment council, offers unique strengths. It brings a broad range of views into decisions about degree requirements that helps to ensure currency and relevance. It prevents the ideological myopia that too often controls programs designed by a single department. By bringing outside experts into the process of academic decision making, it helps to ensure both the credibility and the accountability of WGU’s programs.


Western Governors University has addressed its founding governors’ concerns about cost by focusing exclusively on distance learning, thereby avoiding the capital costs of a residential campus. By contracting with other institutions and corporations to obtain the courses and other learning resources it needs, it has avoided the costs of course development and maintenance. By focusing its faculty exclusively on student advisement instead of direct instruction, it has achieved a faculty:student ratio as high as 1:80. As a result of these measures, tuition at WGU, a private institution without state support, is currently only $2,590 per semester for a full-time student.

Central as these issues are to the university’s cost effectiveness, however, its answers to the issues of educational coherence and credibility are at least as important. WGU mistrusts grades and credits, and is notably reluctant to award transfer credit—doing so for only a few elements of lower division general education. It recognizes learning, however, wherever and however it may have been earned. The system recognizes that students may learn what they need to know in a variety of ways, formal and informal, over a long period of time—it just asks them to prove it. Accordingly, they may sit for their assessments at any time, and they can progress toward their degrees as rapidly as they prove their mastery. The coherence of their degrees is ensured in two ways: first through the close guidance of their faculty mentors, and second through the comprehensive nature of their degree competencies. These are not the result of a single faculty member’s point of view, nor are they derived from course equivalencies. They are designed as complete structures, the body of knowledge, skills, and abilities that a broad cross-section of experts judge necessary for a student at a given degree level to possess. So, too, are the university’s use of external experts on its councils, its use of criterion-referenced scoring and external graders for its assessments, and its definition of competency as the equivalent of B or better work in traditional, high-quality grading systems. All of these strategies aim to address the deleterious effects of narrowly conceived degree designs, subjective evaluation, and grade inflation.

A university designed and operated along these lines utterly confounds the traditional metrics of student, faculty, and institutional performance. A competency-based system in which every learning objective for every degree is known in advance by students, faculty, administration, and the public enables that institution to be accountable in ways no traditional institution can ever be. It enables students to know before they enroll exactly what they must master, to monitor their own learning precisely and in depth at every stage of their progress, and to proceed at whatever pace they have time and talent to manage. So, too, the faculty: they can know exactly where their students are at any time, what competencies are giving them the most difficulty, and where to focus their teaching/mentoring attention so as to be most helpful. And yes, the administration: its members will have the means to know more about how the institution as a whole is performing, as well as about individual student and faculty performance, than ever before possible. They can align those indicators to achieve institutional improvement on any number of scales. Beyond aggregated retention rates and student surveys, they can drill into actual student performance by individual and by assessment, monitor how rapidly every student is progressing, identify common trouble spots, and work much earlier and more precisely with faculty to construct appropriate interventions for students who are struggling. Similarly, they can know more about faculty performance with students than was ever before possible, including comparative success rates on assessments, progress rates toward degrees, and retention rates. They can identify whether faculty are more successful with some kinds of students than others—lower division or upper division, for instance—and they can work with faculty to construct professional development programs to improve their success.


Western Governors University is not the only model that will emerge to meet the needs of the new century’s students and employers, but it embodies the strategies and structures that its founding governors were convinced must arise. Western Governors University is a data-driven institution. It collects and uses information about its performance not only to improve its accountability to its internal and external constituents, but most importantly to improve the effectiveness of the model itself. As a new institution developing a new paradigm of university education, it knows it must be self-critical, and that it must use its analytical tools to be self-correcting. As developed at Western Governors University, competency-based education fosters student-centeredness because it provides more information about student progress more quickly and in greater depth than traditional educational models allow. It fosters validity because of the broad consensus it requires in determining the competencies that define its degrees. It fosters reliability because of the methodology it employs in the development of its assessments, and in their secure delivery. It improves faculty effectiveness because it ties their performance directly to student retention, progress, and success.

At other institutions, competency-based education will undoubtedly take different forms. It will not necessarily follow the model developed by Western Governors University. But it will develop in large measure because of Western Governors University and the pioneering work it has done in proving the quality, viability, and educational richness of this new approach to university education.


Assessment: The process and/or the instruments for determining a student’s mastery of the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to earn a WGU degree.

At WGU, assessments include objective tests, essays, performance tasks, and portfolio presentations.

Business: One of the three principal degree areas offered at WGU. AS and BS degrees are currently available in a variety of emphasis areas; an MBA with emphases in management and information technology is also available.

Certification: The confirmation that external professional requirements have been met. WGU teacher education programs offer certification in elementary education, as well as in secondary school mathematics, science, and social studies. The university can also assist business students in obtaining certification as a human resource professional, and information technology students in obtaining a variety of external professional certifications.

Competency: Demonstrated command of the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for effective performance in a particular degree area.

Demographics: Refers in this context to the changing population profile of the United States, to its implications for higher education, to the reasons for the explosive growth of distance learning, and to a principal reason the western governors established WGU.

Education: One of the three principal degree areas offered at WGU. Bachelor’s and master’s degrees are available in elementary education, and in secondary school mathematics, science, and social studies. A general Master’s of Education degree and a Master’s of Arts in Learning and Technology are also available.

Information Technology: One of three principal degree areas offered at WGU. Bachelor’s degrees are offered in a wide variety of IT-related specialties. An MBA in information technology management is also available.

Learning Outcomes: Often used at other institutions as a synonym for competencies, but generally defined more broadly and sometimes confused with completion of assignments. An acceptable learning outcome might be, for instance, a passing grade on an essay. Unless the assignment is carefully designed, however, neither the essay nor its grade may reveal much about the true extent of the student’s knowledge, skills, and abilities in the subject area. It is this imprecision that led WGU to prefer the greater specificity of “competencies.”

Mentor: The principal faculty role at WGU. Every student has a personal mentor to help design the degree plan and guide the student in completing it. Mentors work with students from admission to graduation as advisors, coaches, tutors, problem solvers, and (often) as goads to help students fulfill their own learning aspirations.

Prior Learning: Refers to the knowledge, skills, and abilities that students have acquired prior to enrolling in a college program. While many adult-oriented institutions evaluate such learning and award credit for it, WGU requires students to demonstrate their mastery by passing assessments. Students may sit for their assessments at any time, however, and accelerate toward their degrees as rapidly as they can pass them.

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