|by James L.
[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in
On the Horizon, 1998, 6(4), 2-4. It is posted here with permission
from Jossey Bass
The Western Governors University (WGU) will open its virtual doors this summer. Because of the potential size
and scope of the institution, and because it will award competency-based degrees, WGU
signals a major change in the future of higher education. Jeff Livingston, the CEO, is a
former faculty member who ventured into administration and stayed, last serving as an
academic officer for the Utah System of Higher Education before joining WGU.
James Morrison (JM): Jeff, WGU is a bellwether for higher education. What were
the major factors that led the Western governors to begin a virtual university? What are
WGUs goals and vision?
Jeff Livingston (JL): There were several main goals the governors had
in mind, which led to WGUs vision. These goals included expanding access to
postsecondary education, reducing the costs of providing educational opportunities, and
providing a means for learners to obtain formal recognition of the knowledge they acquire
through technology-based learning. One major goal was to shift the focus of education to
the actual competence of students and away from seat time, and with this shift
to create high performance standards that could be widely accepted and would serve to
improve the quality of postsecondary education. In addition, the governors sought to
demonstrate new approaches both to teaching and to assessment that could be adopted and
adapted by more traditional colleges and universities.
JM: How is WGU organized?
JL: WGU is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation with the administrative
office located in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the academic office located in Denver,
Colorado. As CEO, I head a staff of seven employees who focus on development, marketing,
budget, and policy. Bob Albrecht, the chief academic officer, heads a staff of eight
employees in Denver who focus on curriculum development, customer relations, and provider
relations. Bob and I report to the fourteen-member WGU Board of Trustees, consisting of
governors and representatives of higher education and industry who are elected by the
eighteen member-governors of WGU.
WGU does not employ faculty in the traditional
sense. WGU does have faculty who establish outcome and performance standards for all WGU
degree certification programs and who ensure quality assurance in the degree-granting
process. WGU faculty do not develop content, nor do they teach courses. We contract with
third-party providers to develop course content. We also broker courses and programs from
existing institutions and providers. We will establish a network of local centers in
participating states to aid students in obtaining access to technology and student
JM: How is WGU financed?
JL: Because WGU is a nonprofit corporation, we have received start-up
financing from several different sources. Member states each contributed a one-time
payment of $100,000 when they joined. The majority of start-up financing is coming from
eleven corporations and foundations whose representatives hold a seat on the WGU National
Advisory Board, which serves at the pleasure of the WGU Board of Trustees. Colorado
recently awarded WGU a significant grant for curriculum development. These funds will be
used to develop approximately ten more competency-based programs. WGU will collect tuition
from students and will remit it to those institutions or other entities that provide the
curriculum content. WGU will get revenue from providers that list their courses and
content on the SmartCatalogour trademarked online course directoryand from
students who register for our courses and degrees. We anticipate being self-supporting by
the year 2006.
JM: What are the unique, distinctive characteristics of WGU?
JL: WGU is unique in several ways, especially with regard to our
offering of competency-based degrees and credentials. The WGU SmartCatalog/Advisor
delivery mechanism is unique as well. Students with access to the Internet or WGU local
centers, or those who choose to dial in to the WGU 1-800 number, will be able to log on to
the catalog. The catalog will assist students in developing their own personal profiles.
These profiles will enable us to determine learner types and needs for furthering their
education. Profiles will also provide us with students suggestions and
recommendations for course offerings. In addition, the SmartCatalog/Advisor will give
students access to WGU student services, including an on-line bookstore, library, and
available student advisors and mentors. These are just a sampling of what WGU will be able
to offer students.
JM: How will WGU deliver courses?
JL: WGU will be open to all methods of technology. Means of delivery
may include on-line, video, satellite, or mailed correspondence. In addition, WGU will
offer both synchronous and asynchronous delivery of courses, depending on the provider. In
synchronous classes, students will be on a set schedule, such as a quarter or semester.
With asynchronous courses, students can begin at any time and work at their own pace to
finish within a more open-ended time frame.
JM: What will be the initial academic offering?
JL: WGU will initially offer two competency-based degree programs: an
Associate of Arts Degree and an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Electronic
Manufacturing Technology. WGU has just secured a $3 million grant from the State of
Colorado to be used for the development of additional competency-based degree programs.
Our goal is to have ten to twelve additional degree programs ready to go within the next
The initial academic offering will include
distance-delivered courses submitted by existing institutions and providers. The number of
courses will continue to grow as WGU opens up to more states, and as more institutions
join in providing content.
JM: You use the term competency-based degree programs. How do you go about
guaranteeing that WGU graduates will be competent in their fields of study?
JL: No one can guarantee competency, but we can certify performance by
using various assessments that are valid indicators of competency acquisition. A standing
assessment council composed of individuals with a substantial knowledge of performance
assessment will supervise the credentialing process. The council is charged with ensuring
the technical adequacy of all assessments offered by WGU, reviewing program council
performance descriptions and working with program councils to develop specifications for
adequate placement and credentialing assessments, and reviewing existing assessment
instruments and technologies to determine their suitability for use as part of the WGU
credentialing process. The council will solicit assessment instruments from third parties
and will provide general oversight for the assessment process, including periodically
reviewing the assessment activities of local centers.
JM: What are the major issues and considerations WGU is grappling with now?
JL: Two key issues are federal financial aid and accreditation. WGU
has been fortunate to have met with the U.S. Department of Education on several occasions,
to discuss the option of advancing financial aid opportunities to distance learning
students. WGU is currently in the process of discussing options with the Department of
Education so that WGU degree-seeking students will have access to federal financial aid
while steps are being taken to find a more permanent solution to the problem through the
reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
Concerning a second crucial issue, WGU is
currently in the process of seeking accreditation through a consortium entitled the Inter
Regional Accrediting Committee (IRAC). IRAC is a sixteen-member committee, consisting of
four individuals from each of four different accrediting commissions: the Commission of
Institutions of Higher Education, North Central Association of Colleges and Schools; the
Commission on Colleges, Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges; the Commission for
Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges; and the
Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, Western Association of Schools and
Colleges. These commissions approve the accreditation of institutions in WGU member states
(with the exception of Texas and Indiana). IRAC has developed a set of common requirements
for the four associations that will be used to determine WGUs eligibility for
candidacy. As a result, IRAC will be able to approve WGUs eligibility and ultimately
its accreditation status.
JM: What are your immediate plans for development beyond what you have already
JL: We are continually reaching out to add more member states. Most
recently, the state of Indiana has joined WGU, extending our reach even further east, and
we are hopeful that we will soon see other states join.
The implementation process of WGU will
continually enter new phases. As our state membership and student enrollments grow, the
SmartCatalog/Advisor and course offerings will continue to grow as well. WGU will always
be looking to the next plateau in order to continue to offer students increased
educational opportunities in a cost-effective manner.
JM: Jeff, many thanks for your time, for I know that you are riding a whirlwind
getting this important enterprise off the ground. You are leading not only WGU into the
twenty-first century but higher education as well. We give you our best wishes for