Western Governors University is pioneering a new, fast-growing model of education: Competency-based learning.
In traditional classrooms, time is fixed and student learning varies. Schools operate under inflexible calendars, schedules, and seat-time requirements. When the bell rings, official learning time ends whether students have fully mastered the material or not.
Competency-based learning turns this model on its head. Students earn progress to the next level by demonstrating they have mastered their subject. Gifted students have the freedom to accelerate, and remedial students have the freedom to slow down. The goal is to ensure that degrees, certificates, and other credentials are credible to both academic institutions and employers rather than measures of “time put in.”
WGU, a wholly online university built around competency-based learning, has seen a 30 percent annual enrollment growth since its foundation. A new study from the California-based Innosight Institute suggests why.
“Competency-based learning has become a hot topic in K-12 education,” said Michael B. Horn, Innosight’s executive director for education. The study “serves as a powerful example for states looking to move away from a seat-time-based public K-12 education system to a student-centric option that allows students to move at their own path and pace.”
The WGU Model
In 1995, the governors of several western states met to address a shared challenge. With limited funding for buildings and professors, they needed to create high-quality, affordable postsecondary options for a growing population of adults with busy lives and hectic schedules, factors that make attending traditional colleges and universities difficult.
The governors, including then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, and Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer, believed a wholly online university, with no classrooms, dorms, or traditional in-person lectures, could be the solution.
Students could enroll throughout the year. There would be no attendance or participation requirements. Instead, students would complete a degree at their own pace, demonstrating mastery in their fields of study by passing a series of assignments and tests.
Those ideas became the foundation of Western Governors University. It was chartered in 1996 with $20 million in seed money from 18 states and Guam, then incorporated as a private, nonprofit university in 1997. After WGU established headquarters in Salt Lake City and Denver, it accepted 30 students in 1999.
By 2003 WGU enrolled 300 students, and today it enrolls more than 30,000 students nationwide. It is supported by over 20 major businesses and foundations.
“What makes us most unique,” said Robert Mendenhall, WCU’s president, “is that …we actually measure ‘learning’ rather than ‘time.’ So for each degree, we define what we expect graduates to know, and be able to do. When they demonstrate it, they graduate.”
Nuts and Bolts
WGU offers more than 50 bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Business, Teacher Education, Information Technology, and Health Professions. Rather than earning degrees based on credit hours, students demonstrate competency in their chosen subject matter.
WGU students are typically in their mid-thirties, and 70 percent have full-time jobs. Degree programs are designed to accommodate students’ busy lives.
Students receive online courses and take pre-assessments to identify learning deficits. They use these courses to prepare for the final assessment, which they can take any time they feel ready. Student competency is measured by both proctored exams and creative projects. Passing a WGU competency assessment is equivalent to earning a “B” or better at a traditional university.
WGU students have individual mentors who stay with them from enrollment until graduation. They also have course mentors, subject-matter experts who provide ongoing tutorial support. Additionally, WGU employs 300 adjunct faculty members whose sole responsibility is to grade assessments. This practice ensures grading is based strictly on the quality of students’ work.
The average WGU student completes a baccalaureate degree in less than 30 months, and tuition is affordable. WGU charges a flat rate of between $2,890 and $4,250 per six-month term, depending on the program.
“The ‘all-you-can-eat’ approach means that for this flat payment, WGU allows students to take as many courses of study each term as they can handle,” explains Heather Staker, the study’s author and an Innosight senior research fellow. “This tuition is one-sixth of the annual expense at a private four-year college on average and half as much as an online for-profit like the University of Phoenix.”
New Approach to Accountability
Competency-based learning is a next-generation model requiring a novel student accountability system, Staker said.
The WGU system tracks when mentors refer students for an assessment, when students schedule assessments, and whether they pass. The university has a drops database that records why students withdraw or take term breaks.
A similar model could be applied to K-12 education, where schools struggle to raise student performance and close achievement gaps.
“K-12 students of the future will not care about seat-time compliance and instead will focus on actually learning things and certifying competency,” said Staker. “This laser focus on outcomes has required WGU to piece together a unique data architecture, which can serve as a model for states seeking to build a competency-based data system for K-12.”
“The Engine Behind WGU: Configuration of a Competency-Based Information System,” Innosight Institute, February 2012: http://www.innosightinstitute.org/innosight/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/The-engine-behind-WGU.pdf 
Image by DAHstra .