EdMedia Commons Archive

Five Questions For … Western Governors University President Robert Mendenhall

Robert Mendenhall is president of Western Governors University, a nonprofit online school. He spoke with EWA about the role of distance education in re-training the nation’s workforce, and a new federal initiative aimed at improving the quality of teacher preparation programs.

1. College traditionally is a time for students to “find themselves.” How does that jibe with an online experience?

The traditional student – someone 18 or 19 years old – is still likely to opt for a campus experience.  But there’s a percentage of the population that never ends up on a campus because they can’t, either because of access issues or finances or a lack of academic preparation. We need options for those students to get an education that will help them get good jobs and meet workforce needs.

Online education today primarily serves working adults, and 70 percent of our students are working full time. They “found themselves” some time ago, and now what they need is additional education to remain relevant in the workforce. There are jobs that have gone away and aren’t coming back.

2. What’s a popular misconception about WGU you’d like to correct?

I don’t think many people fully understand our competency based learning model. The vast majority of online learning in this country is just classroom learning delivered over the Internet. The difference at WGU is we’ve changed the faculty role from standing at the front of the room delivering the lecture, to standing on the side and serving as a coach, guiding students and leading discussions. The course material is delivered through computer-based instruction. We don’t require students to spend a certain number of hours in class. They complete their courses and advance by demonstrating competency through tests and assessments.

3. There was a recent report by the Office of the Inspector General which found organized fraud rings had stolen tens of millions of dollars in federal financial aid for higher education by enrolling ineligible and unqualified students in online learning programs. Were you surprised by the findings?  

We’ve always been aware that individuals might try to take advantage of a student loan program for which they’re not eligible. The evidence that there were organized crime rings involved in these kinds of deceptions was really surprising. The report doesn’t have much relation to WGU because of the extensive pre-enrollment counseling we do with students. We check their academic credentials and also require them to complete a numeracy and literacy competency exam.

4. The OIG report suggested federal funds were being misappropriated by online students who claimed they needed help with living expenses. What’s your take on that?

It’s easy to say someone doing online education is living at home and they shouldn’t get those funds, compared with a student living in a dorm. That might make sense until you look at our teacher education program. Those students are student-teaching, working with an advisor and taking classes. They aren’t working during those 12 weeks. The same is true for our nursing students during their clinical rotations.

We serve many low-income students, some of whom quit one of their two jobs so they’d have time to go to school and improve their lives. I’m totally OK with matching federal funds with students who need it, but a blanket statement saying online students don’t need living expenses is really shortsighted.

5. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently announced a $185 million initiative to help states improve the quality of teacher preparation programs. How well are WGU graduates doing in the classroom?

Teacher performance is not something that’s measured well in most states. Our graduates are spread out over all 50 states, which also makes it difficult to measure. All of our students have to do teacher licensing exams. We know that close to 100 percent of our students pass these exams, and we know that 25 percent score in the top 15 percent.

We contract with a third party to survey employers – principals in the schools – on how our graduates rate against graduates of other universities. The challenge is legally you can’t contact an employer without the graduate’s permission. As you might guess, the graduates who are really confident in what their principal thinks of them give us permission, and the ones who aren’t don’t. As a result the research is a little bit skewed, and we recognize that.

We’d like a comprehensive way to look at every graduate, but it doesn’t exist right now. We’re hopeful that eventually better data at the state level will help us with that goal.

This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.