Who would have thought a virtual graduation would be a possibility in 2020? Thanks to technology, it is. This weekend we witnessed the first virtual graduation ceremony called Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020. Graduates from across the U.S. thanked their teachers and told their stories while the biggest athletes and celebrities honored them. The ceremony even included a commencement speech by former President Barack Obama which has gained lots of attention. But the real stars of the show were the graduates.

Now, as many high schoolers face an uncertain future, one university is an example for how the past can move forward through an uncertain future with a little help from technology. Since 1997, Western Governors University has found success with their competency-based education model – for about half the cost of other online universities. We spoke with Debbie Fowler, Senior VP of Student Success at WGU. She leads close to 2,500 employees to support students and colleagues with an array of services that drive student success across the student lifecycle. 

Grit Daily: For those unfamiliar, what sets WGU apart from other universities – online or not?

Debbie Fowler: Western Governors University’s 21st-century approach to higher education is based on two innovations: competency-based learning and technology-driven instruction. 

Competency-based education means that our courses and curriculum are all focused on teaching specific skills and knowledge that employers need their employees to master—and our assessments evaluate that mastery. It’s an approach that measures learning rather than time; students complete their courses as quickly as they’re able to learn the material, rather than accumulating credit hours by logging seat time in class. Many WGU students accelerate through their courses because of this approach, graduating early and saving money.

Technology-driven, personalized learning experience is based on our belief that internet technology is more than just a new way to deliver traditional, lecture-style classroom education. Innovative educational technologies improve the learning experience by providing instruction in a way that can’t be done in a traditional setting. At WGU, we provide students with online, technology-enabled learning resources—learning modules, simulations, bite-size reading & video content, pulse-check quizzes, and convenient final assessments to gauge comprehension along the way. This allow students to learn in the ways that work best for them.

WGU graduates
GD: You have many programs to help students succeed, including your WGU Women in Leadership Scholarship. How have you seen those practices encourage students to excel at WGU?

DF: We strive to be the most student-centric university in the world, so everything we do is focused on helping our students succeed. Scholarships like the one you mentioned—and dozens of others—are designed to complement our already very low tuition in order to help students make the decision to enroll in a life-changing degree program without letting financial concern get in the way. But where our support practices really come into play and make a noticeable difference is once a student enrolls. 

Our faculty is different from faculty at other institutions in that we’ve taken the traditional roles that are usually all bundled up in one faculty member and we’ve split them among different types of faculty. So, curriculum and assessments are not written by the same person who teaches the class and then grades student work. This eliminates the potential for bias and lets each faculty member focus on his or her specific role in the student’s success.

Students have Program Mentors, who are faculty members that instruct and guide them at the program level, from the day they enroll to the day they graduate. They also work with Course Instructors, subject-matter experts who provide one-on-one and cohort instruction in individual courses. And a separate Evaluation Faculty reviews students’ assessments based on a rubric that lets them fairly, helpfully and quickly assess which competencies a student has mastered, and which ones still need work. 

GD: The current pandemic is making high school graduates very skeptical and nervous about the future. How is WGU helping students both current and prospective?

DF: The role of the Program Mentor as a constant guide and source for support has always been a crucial part of WGU’s model, but their importance has never been so clear as now. With students navigating new realities, facing uncertainty in their careers and their personal lives, a trusted person they can go to—someone who knows from firsthand experience the industries they work int—has proved extremely valuable to our students.

At WGU, we are grateful and proud that our flexible approach to learning has meant that our students are able to continue learning and progressing through their programs even as much of the rest of their daily lives have become so unexpectedly and dramatically disrupted. We believe that education is the surest pathway to opportunity and a brighter future, and our students believe it to. We’ve been honored and amazed to work with our current students as they continue to prioritize their education and to keep welcoming thousands of new students each month.

We exist specifically so that students don’t have to choose between continuing to work while gaining the skills they need for their careers’ next steps.

Debbie Fowler, Senior VP of Student Success at Western Governors University
GD: Many graduates are facing a difficult decision choosing between work and putting their education first.  Why is WGU a wonderful choice for students, especially during this time as they navigate a new world?

DF: Before the pandemic, 85% of our students worked while going to school—most of them full time. More than half are married, and their median age is 35. By designing WGU for working learners, we have found success.

Our students don’t log in to class at an assigned day and time; they don’t enroll in four classes at the start of the semester and then stick with those classes for four months. Students study on their time and pass assessments where and when it works best for them. Assessments are proctored via webcam from the convenience of students homes or offices. It can even be in the middle of the night if that’s what works best. And another huge benefit of competency-based education is that, by focusing on the skills employers need, the things students learn at school frequently translate directly to what they’re doing at work, and what they do at work often becomes the topic of the papers or projects they complete for school.

GD: Are there any upsides for grads looking for work while attending school post COVID-19 that maybe didn’t exist before?

DF: Online education and remote work were already increasing in their popularity, and while still not for everyone, the way so much of the economy and academia have had to quickly and unexpectedly embrace technology-enabled alternatives to the traditional way of doing things can and should pave the way for a more permanent change, one that moves in the direction of flexibility and personalization. 

Additionally, by exposing existing inequities and faults in the system, this pandemic could lead to important social and cultural changes that could pave the way for better access and more equitable outcomes for students and employees from diverse backgrounds and circumstances.

GD: What are some no-no’s for grads when looking for colleges?

DF: Don’t assume that cost and quality are inextricably linked—high-cost doesn’t always mean high-quality, and an outstanding education can be achieved on any budget. At the same time, be cautious of options that seem too good to be true—do your homework, search for reviews from real students and alumni, and ask hard questions of the enrollment team. 

But the biggest no-no of all is doubting yourself: You’re capable of achieving more than you think, and a school that offers support tailored to your needs can empower you to become the success story you dream of being.

GD: If there was one big takeaway for millennials seeking to further their education at this time, what would it be from your perspective?

DF: Honestly, I would probably be nervous if I had been a graduate during this time trying to navigate everything. But, if I could coach my younger self, I would urge her to embrace the opportunity to design my own future.  I would invest time considering where my passions lie, what my priorities are – financial, family, community – and what I need to learn successfully.

The higher education landscape has already changed dramatically from what your parents and grandparents knew, and it will continue to change in response to the learnings prompted by the pandemic. The result is an educational ecosystem that rejects the old school notion to go to school now so that you can start living “real life” later. Instead, real life starts now, and education has become an open loop of lifetime learning, living and meaningful work that feeds your passion.