Quite a few people have asked me for my opinion this week about WGU and the recent OIG finding. I think the underlying problem is not the model employed by WGU, it is how we fund financial aid.

When it came to the distribution of financial aid and the tuition rates they charged, WGU was one of the most ethically responsible educational organizations I have ever worked for. The staff worked tirelessly to keep tuition low by any means possible (approximately $3000 per 6-month term, with no raise in tuition for 8 years), and to educate students about the debt they might incur. WGU actually encourages its graduates to NOT take financial aid if they can possibly afford to just pay the tuition and as a result of these policies, they have actually seen students take lower financial aid amounts. Compared to national averages, WGU students graduate with very little debt.

Now, is the WGU model different from traditional education? Yup, it is. Does that mean that WGU students don’t learn as a result of this different model? Nope.

WGU students learn by being responsible learners and engaging with content and with course mentors when needed. A student at a large Research 1 institution might attend a large 1000-person lecture hall, and that is deemed “regular and substantive interaction” (RSI) with faculty. Most of the students in these large lecture halls are watching Netflix or texting with friends (if they even show up). There is basically no difference between watching a video of the professor and watching the lecture live in person (except for the government categorization of this as RSI).

Here’s where I think the law goes kind of funny. I do think there is a difference in what the government should subsidize depending on the type of education that is given. The interaction with full-time faculty in small courses (30-person courses, not 1000-person courses) does cost an institution more. The interaction with faculty for a CBE models like WGU’s should just be a different financial aid cost tier. We already grant more financial aid to students who go to more expensive institutions (regardless of the fact that earning the degree doesn’t really change from institution to institution). If the government really wants to grant financial aid based on RSI (which they measure as coexistence with faculty in the same space/time continuum), then reward tiers for financial aid should simply be based on the faculty:student ratio:

  • 1:12 or less (graduate school, senior courses) – highest tier of financial aid for students
  • 1:13 to 1:30 (most community colleges, junior/senior level classes) – mid-high tier of award for financial aid
  • 1:31 to 1:100 (higher enrollment CC courses, 1st- and 2nd-year courses) – middle tier of award for financial aid
  • 1:101 and up (some CBE models, freshman courses at some state schools, subscription models of credit, MOOCs) – low tier for financial aid

Just to be clear, not all CBE programs are modeled like WGU’s model. Some CBE models definitely have more ownership and organized guidance by faculty who are experts in the courses. In these models, there is more like a 1:24 ratio of faculty to students in the subject area.

The OIG ruling is simply based on laws that are completely out-of-date. Sitting in a classroom does not mean a student is learning. In fact, in today’s distracted digital environment, presence in a classroom has almost nothing to do with it. We need new laws. Period.