The Chronicle of Higher Education
February 6, 1998

Western Governors U. Takes Shape as a New Model for Higher Education
By Goldie Blumenstyk

Backers of Western Governors University still have heady expectations for their new institution. They hope W.G.U. will revolutionize the way colleges compete for students, the way professors teach, and the way education is measured.

It just might take a while.

They also still believe that the "virtual university," which will use technology to deliver courses, can help rein in the costs of educating ever larger numbers of students here in Utah and the other booming states of the West.

But as they take this new institution from rhetoric to reality, front-line administrators are being far more sober than their political overseers in suggesting how much financial relief W.G.U. might provide.

"It will take some pressure off," says Robert C. Albrecht, a former University of Colorado vice-president who now serves as the new institution's chief academic officer. But W.G.U. won't reduce future education spending by the states as much as some people think, he says -- particularly in light of the kinds of markets it intends to pursue.

The distance-learning university is expected to draw most of its enrollment from the growing base of part-time and non-traditional students, not the flood of campus-bound 18-to-24-year-olds.

Indeed, how big a factor W.G.U. will become in academe is still an open question, one that could have ramifications not only for the way states deal with growth, but also for how they allocate money for higher education, and how colleges treat their faculty members.

On campuses here and around the country, some professors worry that W.G.U. will add to the pressure for using technology to deliver courses, pressure that would result in larger, more impersonal classes. They also fear that it will encourage institutions to handle their new, distant students by hiring a slew of low-paid, part-time adjuncts, rather than by expanding their permanent faculties.

W.G.U.'s first test could come as early as this month, when it expects to start enrolling students in two programs -- one for an associate-of-arts degree and the other for a certificate in electronic-manufacturing technology.

Twenty-one colleges and corporations, representing most of the 16 participating W.G.U. states and Guam, will provide courses that students can take via computer or though other technology. Eventually, those who pass a series of tests in competencies defined by W.G.U. will receive the appropriate degree or certificate. W.G.U.'s "assessment council" will select the tests.

Fewer than 100 students may be involved in the two pilot programs. Still, W.G.U. officials say they will be a crucial first test of the public's reaction to its competency-based degrees, as well as how well it handles the myriad logistics involved in serving a far-flung student body.

Western Governors University has made a lot of progress in the two years since Governors Michael O. Leavitt of Utah and Roy Romer of Colorado began promoting the "virtual university" idea to colleagues at a meeting of the Western Governors' Association in Las Vegas.

Established as a private, non-profit corporation, W.G.U. is headed by a 14-member Board of Trustees that can include no more than four governors as members. The university's day-to-day affairs are directed by Dr. Albrecht, whose offices are in Denver, and by E. Jeffrey Livingston, the chief administrative officer, who works here in Salt Lake City.

In keeping with its private-market focus, W.G.U. also has a National Advisory Board made up of executives from corporations such as International Thompson, Microsoft, and Novell. Each of the companies has donated at least $250,000 to the enterprise.

Max Farbman, who joined W.G.U. last year as director of development, wants eight or nine others for that board. Mr. Farbman, an affable lawyer here, and former campaign chairman for Governor Leavitt, is seeking additional donors as well. The institution has set fund-raising goals of $10-million to $12-million in the next two years, and more than $30-million by 2003.

About $9-million has been pledged to date, including $100,000 from each participating state and $3-million that Governor Romer provided from a Colorado budget-surplus fund. Utah provides an additional $400,000 a year to help cover the university's operating expenses.

W.G.U. has used some of the money to hire consultants to help it formulate a business plan, shape an initial academic program, and develop all-important standards of competency for its first programs.

As the business model recommends, W.G.U. will be a three-headed creature -- an electronic clearinghouse through which established colleges or companies can market their distance-learning courses and students can connect to them; a vehicle for delivering training to corporate employees; and an institution that will award degrees and certificates to students who master specified competencies in academic or technical fields.

The competency program is one of the most distinguishing and controversial elements of W.G.U., particularly because it is coupled with the idea of allowing students to earn degrees by acquiring knowledge from corporate and commercial sources as well as from traditional colleges.

But the institution plans to establish itself by appealing first to a more conventional base -- people seeking specific corporate training or students who would use W.G.U. to find a distance-education course or two offered by a traditional college.

In its initial years, only a tiny fraction of W.G.U. students are expected to take part in the competency programs. Even after eight years, when enrollment is projected to have risen to 95,000, only one out of four students enrolled in W.G.U. is likely to be pursuing a competency-based certificate or degree. Students from anywhere in the world could enroll.

Planners expect that W.G.U. could start running in the black by 2005, with revenues of $126-million.

"There's no question in our minds that we can make more money on the corporate side," says Dr. Livingston. The software maker Novell, for example, which is a W.G.U. participant, says people who want to learn about its software already sign up for outside classes -- some of them as short as a day -- 750,000 times a year. The courses are offered by companies that use Novell materials.

To build the corporate market and others, W.G.U. officials have begun talks with major employers and are seeking an advertising agency to create a marketing plan. Any plan is sure to involve such approaches as listing W.G.U. on Internet search engines like Yahoo!

Several universities and companies have been selected to provide such student services as electronic library access, remote registration, and an on-line bookstore.

Work on W.G.U.'s heralded "Smart Catalogue/Adviser," developed with International Business Machines Corporation, is also moving ahead. Designed as an interactive tool, the catalogue is to be the technological nerve center of W.G.U. -- and could potentially be much more.

Institutions and companies will use the catalogue to market their courses on the World-Wide Web. Its elaborate features will include tools that students can use to determine whether W.G.U.'s offerings meet their schedules, their academic or professional interests, and their budgets.

The catalogue can tell a student whether a course is delivered as an interactive class, via television, during scheduled hours; as a self-paced tutorial over the Internet; or by some other technology. If a student is seeking a competency-based degree, the catalogue can identify just what competencies the course is designed to teach. It can connect the student to the W.G.U. registrar, library, and bookstore. Eventually, it may also incorporate previous students' course evaluations.

Colleges and corporations would pay to list their courses, and would pay a fee for every student they enroll through it. The catalogue will allow students to "make an informed choice" about courses, says Dr. Livingston, the administrative officer. With it, he says, "the governors are creating a market."

Along with the plan for competency-based degrees, it is the notion of creating and expanding the distance-education market that so excites W.G.U.'s founders.

Governor Leavitt, in fact, likens the new institution to "a kind of New York Stock Exchange of technology-delivered courses." He envisions a catalogue with listings from hundreds of institutions, corporations, and publishers, giving students ready access to thousands of educational opportunities.

And just as investors can assume certain things about the size and stability of a company that lists its stock on the New York exchange, so too will students who enroll in courses through W.G.U. have some guarantees about the services they can expect, according to Mr. Leavitt.

Right now, he says, all kinds of courses and educational options are available from all sorts of sources, but "there is no universal standard or protocol to assure their quality." W.G.U. can provide that, he says. Eventually, he adds, it might incorporate listings from other distance-learning ventures, like the Southern Regional Electronic Campus and the California Virtual University.

Before that can happen, though, W.G.U. has several daunting hurdles to clear.

Gaining accreditation is one of the first. Officials of the four regional accrediting bodies in the West have formed a 16-member commission to handle the process. Now that Texas has joined, four more members may be added from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

"I think 'skeptical' would typify the views," says the Rev. Patrick J. Ford, chairman of the commission and chief academic officer at Gonzaga University. It is not enough, for example, that W.G.U. has arranged for on-line library access, he explains. The commission will want to know that the library system actually lets students find what they need.

Members also have questions about the viability of W.G.U.'s plans for competency-based degrees, he says, and about whether college-level accreditation is being sought for corporate training programs.

At least one member of the commission, Father Ford says, "cannot conceive of a school without faculty." The accreditation commission has established 20 eligibility requirements for W.G.U., one of which calls for it to show that "it has a core of qualified faculty with primary responsibility to the institution."

The university doesn't intend to hire any professors of its own; all of its courses and offerings will come from other colleges and providers. Still, Father Ford says the commission is giving the new institution a serious look. "If we found them so out of the ballpark, we wouldn't be having these meetings," he says.

Gaining access to federally sponsored financial-aid programs is another hurdle. Under existing law, W.G.U. students could not qualify for federal grants or loans, because institutions that offer more than half of their courses by correspondence or distance learning can't participate in the programs. W.G.U. lobbyists in Washington, along with officials of other institutions that offer distance education, are already at work trying to get the law amended. Meanwhile, W.G.U. is applying to the U.S. Education Department for status as an experimental program, which would allow its students to qualify for aid.

What's more, in some states, regulations prohibit students from using state financial-aid grants at a private college. As W.G.U. grows, those states may find themselves under pressure to change that.

Financial-aid policies, however, may be just the beginning for governors and other state officials who handle higher education. W.G.U.'s impact on the broader issues of college finance represents a far more complex equation.

Higher-education leaders in New Mexico, for example, welcome W.G.U., explaining that the state already has too many public-college campuses for the number of students enrolled. They are looking to the new venture to offset political pressures from some communities to expand the campuses even further, or to build more. "We've built an infrastructure that's expensive and spread out across the state," says Bruce D. Hamlett, executive director of New Mexico's Commission on Higher Education.

It's a different situation in Utah, where the nine public colleges are already at or near their capacity. Last semester, in fact, Utah State University turned away about 2,000 students because it didn't have room for them. The university system expects a 30-per-cent increase in students within 15 years -- the equivalent of nearly 25,000 new full-time students.

To accommodate so many students on traditional campuses, Utah would have to spend $30-million to $45-million a year on new buildings and other facilities for the foreseeable future, according to projections. Governor Leavitt has told educators to expect no more than $25-million for new buildings, and to plan on using computers and other technology to reach the students who can't be served on a campus.

But even if thousands of Utahans decide to go that route, along with comparable numbers from Arizona, Nevada, Washington, and other growing states, just how much can those states really expect to save? After all, the courses and instructors will have to come from somewhere.

Under the W.G.U. scenario, private companies might fill some of that need. Traditional colleges in slower-growing states from outside the region might also sell excess capacity in their courses, says Dr. Livingston. Oklahoma, he notes, has already joined W.G.U., even though it is not part of the Western Governors' Association. Indiana, Kansas, and Pennsylvania have also expressed interest, he says.

And of course, colleges in W.G.U. states will have courses of their own that they may market to students outside their borders.

W.G.U. intends to let each educational provider set its own tuition rate. Institutions that choose to charge out-of-state tuition rates are free to do so, Dr. Livingston notes, but they may find themselves competing for students with other colleges or private companies that charge less for a similar course.

However, he says, that's a problem for institutions and states, not W.G.U. "If the marketplace is there, and you want to participate," then you have to charge what the market will bear, he argues.

How that will affect a college's bottom line is hard to predict. If colleges think they'll lose money, "I think their economic decision will be not to participate," Dr. Livingston says. "The thing about W.G.U. is, it's a business."

That's precisely what alarms many professors, who worry that administrators will chase the bottom line at the expense of the faculty and of academic quality. In Utah, professors have been unnerved by Governor Leavitt's desire to use W.G.U. for courses taught by "superstar" professors who lecture, assisted by a series of lesser faculty members as tutors.

"His statement presupposes that that's what education is -- the delivery of education," says Stephen Ruffus, an associate professor of English at Salt Lake Community College. "Those of us who think about pedagogy think about teaching in far more complex terms than the Governor does."

Dr. Ruffus, who does teach some distance-education courses, also worries about the long-term impact of such courses. "That model may help the institution at the expense of the faculty," he argues, because colleges might try to accommodate the growing numbers of distant students simply by hiring more adjuncts and part-time professors.

He and many of his colleagues elsewhere also have doubts about the soundness of W.G.U.'s academic programs, particularly its emphasis on competency tests.

Dr. Albrecht, the university's chief academic officer, says competency programs do make sense, particularly since so much of what colleges teach has a professional or technical orientation. Academic fields such as business, along with areas such as nursing and engineering, which require licensure, lend themselves to competency-based degrees and certificates, he says.

A competency-based degree in a subject like history, however, is "certainly not very far up on our list," he says. "We have to pick the credential that we offer based on what's acceptable to that particular field."

Dr. Albrecht recognizes that many professors are wary of W.G.U. because it was created by politicians and has had little visible input from traditional academics. But academics from a number of fields were consulted in creating the first degree programs, he says. As new degrees and programs are added, he promises, more academics will be recruited.

"We can do this only when the profession is ready for this," Dr. Albrecht says. "If we lose track of what we can do and do well, we're in trouble."

Copyright (c) 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc. Posted with permission on This article may not be published, reposted, or redistributed without express permission from The Chronicle.

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