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What to know when evaluating your options for online program development

What You and I Can Learn from Western Governors

Charlie Anastasi
February 1, 2024
4 mins

This is an excerpt by Charlie Anastasi, VP of Revenue and Academic Partnerships, in our LinkedIn newsletter Rize Up. Read the full post here.

A few months ago, I took a day off to attend a think tank event in DC on “Measuring Value in Higher Education.” The keynote speaker was Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University (WGU). His talk was so good that it propelled me down a WGU rabbit hole.

On the surface, it might not seem like WGU has much to teach small colleges. The institution was founded in 1997 to serve nontraditional learners, enrolls over 150,000 online learners and relies upon a “competency-based education” model with a clear focus on economic return. This model is designed to be incredibly flexible, especially for those in the workforce.

Not exactly the “Norman Rockwell painting” that is a small liberal arts college.

But after spending more time digging into WGU over the last few months, I think you might want to at least poke your head into the rabbit hole with me. Here are 2 observations I think you (and Rize) can learn from:

Observation #1: WGU's fastest growing segment is 18 - 24 year olds

As mentioned above, WGU was founded to serve nontraditional learners. Historically, only 5% of WGU students were “traditional” 18 - 24 year old students. But over the last five years, without intentional effort, WGU has more than doubled their percentage of 18 - 24 year olds to 13%.

What should we take away from this? I don’t think WGU is typically competing head-to-head with small private colleges. But when one of the biggest higher ed institutions in the country is growing fastest in a segment that is declining overall, it is worth asking what changed.

I think their growth in this segment reinforces a few well documented trends:

  1. Many students are increasingly in favor of online learning.
  2. All students are increasingly focused on economic return. Low cost and reliable wage gains are a core driver of WGU’s overall enrollment success. More students will choose “alternative pathways” if economic return is not addressed.
  3. All students appreciate flexibility and convenience. Nontraditional learners don’t magically start liking convenience at 25 years old. Students at small privates don’t want convenience at the exclusion of a residential experience, but they still like convenience!

I believe the most successful small private colleges will use online learning to create hybrid experiences that deliver economic value, flexibility and the transformational campus experience so many students want.

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