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Disruption, Leadership in Crisis, and Re-Imagining the Promise of Higher Education

The reality is that higher education comes in many forms, and institutions need to be flexible and innovative to stay relevant and ready for whatever comes their way. 

With the degree to which the pandemic has disrupted higher education, it’s more important than ever for leaders and institutions to embrace change and push for a more innovative future that will not only provide institutional benefits but also a better learning experience to students. Western Governors University’s model has allowed them to address the financial strains on postsecondary education and look to the future deliver the best student experience. In this interview, Elvin Freytes, Joe Sallustio and Elizabeth Leiba from EdUp Experience speak to Scott Pulsipher about the push education needs, how the competency-based model tackles the affordability issue and shares advice on having a greater focus on the student. 

EdUp Experience: With our current economic status, what do we need in the United States right now when it comes to education?

Scott Pulsipher (SP): The reality is that we fundamentally need to reinvigorate the promise of education, and that promise is that higher education remains the surest path to opportunity. We need to deal with the reality of what we have today, which is that postsecondary education in all of its forms has worked really well for a certain population of Americans.

If you’re from the top income quartile of American households, over the last 50 years, attainment rates have gone from probably low 40 to north of 70% now. But in terms of access, for the bottom income quartile households that attainment rate has only moved from 9 to 11%.

There’s ample evidence that suggests that this model works really well for the privileged, but it’s not actually working the way we need it to—creating ample opportunity for the entire U.S. population, especially for those who’ve been disadvantaged or disenfranchised.

A lifetime is meant to reflect the progress of individuals starting on the bottom but working their way up. What we’re seeing is that those on the bottom are being ripped off the ladder where we’ve seen ten million initial jobless claims and the number is only going up. You can see which populations need easier access to the learning, knowledge, competencies and skills they need to pursue an opportunity to allow them to progress throughout their lives. We want individuals to progress—we need to make education in all of its pathways work for so many more than for whom it’s currently working.

EdUp Experience: What is WGU model that allows you to be successful even through this disruption period? 

SP: We can break it down into three categories: quality, access and outcomes. For quality, it’s important to recognize that we design and develop curriculum for which the learning outcomes are directly mapped to competencies needed in the workforce. Individuals need to know that what they’ve learned is going to prepare them for success in the pathways they want to pursue.

We design it to allow the learning to be held constant and to let time be a variable. That is a competency-based notion. How do you rapidly design curriculum learning outcomes for relevant competencies, and how do you also enable a model that can be personalized and adapted to how each individual learns. Time is a variable, but competency and proficiency are not. That’s the pedagogical model.

We disaggregated the faculty approach to provide one-to-one faculty-to-student interactions, so that you truly can enable teaching and learning at an individual level rather than only offering content or knowledge that students are left to consume on their own. There are two key elements in access: online and affordability. We know that the internet is a great equalizer when it came to access since it removes issues of proximity. But now, we’re seeing a lack of available high-speed broadband internet, which is amplifying existing inequity–because of affordability or due to living in a rural area. 

When it comes to affordability, we have a very low-cost delivery model. We self-sustain on tuition alone, but our model is simply that we charge a single tuition price for a six-month period in the competency-based model. An individual can complete as many courses as they’re able to during that six-month period, such that the median time it takes for our students to complete their degrees is about two years and four months.

We also obsess over improving the student success rate–progress, course completion rates, persistence. Ultimately, attainment rates that lead to job placement and promotions, and economic returns. We measure all of it–employer satisfaction, graduate and student satisfaction—because those are the people who we’re serving, and we have to make the model work for them. If it doesn’t work for them, then what are we doing this for in the first place?

EdUp Experience: How are you able to tackle the affordability issue? 

SP: We fundamentally believe that you can lower the cost through the function of tuition cost and time to complete. We decided to improve the information available to students such that in doing so, we’ve reduced the borrowing per student by over $5,000 just in the last five years. The percentage of students even borrowing is now below 60%. This is why the number one factor driving our high referral rates among alumni is that over 70% of them say that WGU was worth the cost, meaning they are getting a return on the investment that they made. 

 My primary sense is that so many experience uncertainty in their lives–uncertainty around their own health and wellbeing, those of others, or economic uncertainty. My role during this time is to provide stability. We need to continually let them know that this is one thing that they can rely upon. We’re going to be there, provide a sense of consistency and access to learning and opportunity. We will adapt and manage exceptions on a student-by-student basis. We want to be highly reliable in a period of uncertainty because if there’s anything that we need individually and collectively, it is some sense that things are going to be okay.

The way that we do what we do needs to be different now, so we have to just be comfortable with reconstructing our lives in this unsettled moment. Flexibility is the term of the day, and we will come out stronger at the other end of it. 

EdUp Experience: Why has competency-based education not always been supported within traditional higher ed?

SP: Any time change is happening–whether that’s disruptive or even just evolutionary change–one of the biggest impediments to it is often that current structural and cultural issues prevent its full development. We never really live in it. Our past was inflexible, and we never live in the future. It is always about the present.

When we’re contemplating what needs to happen, we can hardly imagine anything different than what we’ve experienced.  Somehow, we’ve lulled ourselves into thinking that the only legitimate high-quality postsecondary educational experience is one that has time as the measure. 

When you deconstruct that, you see that the general structure is 15 weeks. In that time, you’ll produce all the content and share it with students. Those who can learn at a pace and demonstrate proficiency in this time period will get. Others will get lower grades. 

The competency-based approach has existed forever from a student-centered standpoint. The students are in control of their own time, and when time is the one thing they don’t get more of, they have to be quite judicious about allotting it to developing the skills on which they’ll be evaluated. 

On the employment and workforce side, it is a competency-based world already. It’s about assessing individuals who are demonstrating proficiency, different skills and capabilities. Time is the variable, not the standard for proficiency and evaluation, even if it’s imperfect. The reasons that it hasn’t been adopted more fully tends to be more cultural. We’re stuck in a paradigm that has existed forever. 

EdUp Experience: Are you getting phone calls from other leaders looking to the WGU model and wanting some advice?

SP: I have been, and I find that the difference between leaders who are thinking about it and those who aren’t is really a question of whether they view it as a short-term disruption or a catalyst for long-term change. Is this going to spark a rapid shift towards something that really reworks the design model for how education is accessed, delivered, experienced, and assessed? 

There may be those more forward-thinking ones realizing that this could happen again in the future. They’re going to test the paradigm that we’ve been beholden to for so long, and if we can be more progressive in our thinking in that regard, we’re going to start creating the innovations that we need. 

There have been some really great institutional engagements and partnerships that have happened with WGU and other schools. Some institutions are realizing that if you want to dramatically expand access to high-quality education and improve its outcomes, you need to do it for everyone not just the privileged. 

Some people are thinking about what isn’t working and how they need to make long-term improvements, but there are still those looking to survive one term at a time. In that survival mode, there isn’t motivation for change. And following that line of thinking, you may not be disrupted this time, but you may be disrupted in the future. It’s important to think about innovating as a way to keep yourself relevant. If we continue to keep students at the center of what we do, then we’ll be okay because that’s what’s driving expectations for higher education’s value proposition.

EdUp Experience: How do you cultivate a student-centered model, and what advice would you give to other institutions that want to have that same focus?

SP: This is probably one of the most seminal conversations to have at an institutional level because its outcomes could impact everyone at that institution. First, you have to think about the incentive and performance management reward system. It’s critical to focus on student outcomes like progression, attainment, and experience. You could simplify it to four words: happy, credible, employed graduate. That’s how we measure performance at WGU. When you talk about that outcome, then all of the incentives and performance management for everyone that’s part of the institution is centered around that result.

Second, you have to think about the operational construct in which you’re managing. For a traditional faculty, the goals or incentives are aligned with something different than student outcomes at times. For example, the quality of the curriculum is definitely a function of the faculty’s ability to advance knowledge in the research and theory in their respective fields. But we view that as an input into achieving the primary outcome, such that if you want a credible graduate, they better have learned competencies relevant to the current working world. Faculty need to be able to deliver it. So, when you think about the incentive structure, if the institution’s centered on ensuring the student is happy, credible, employed, and graduated is the key.

EdUp Experience: What responsibility do institutions have in ensuring their programs meet industry needs?

SP: Well, if you want your graduate to be credible, they must have a program will the skills and competencies that prepare them for success on the pathway they’re pursuing. We’ve seen the increase in misalignment between those two things in terms of workforce-readiness and graduates. 

The incentive structure has to ensure that it’s all centered student outcomes. Now, if you’re a research institution, you definitely have different measures of success. The challenge there is that sometimes those get commingled. Well, when you’re forced to make a trade-off which one do you have a bias for? In our case, our bias always aligns with the student.

We should be careful that we don’t try to achieve those outcomes by changing or adjusting admission standards. If we go back to the simple premise that our goal is to help every student succeed and increase their probability of success. then you can’t play around with admissions and selection criteria to decide who you’re going to admit because that often tells you more about the individual than it does the institution. Our management team meets daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and we’re always evaluating the progress we’re achieving and the key metrics that we know are driving student outcomes.  

EdUp Experience: What do you want to be remembered for and what does the future of higher ed look like?

SP: The future of education is one that’s more designed around not just the first opportunity, but also future ones. So, much of our construct of education is about the one and done. Then, you’re off to your lifetime of progress. Our future will be defined by this continual learning loop, believing that individuals will find that the skills and competencies they need. They will have to regularly refresh because the shelf life of these skills is shortening to two to seven years.

A bachelor’s degree signals to everyone that you have the capacity for learning, and that you have the capacity for dealing with ambiguity and new environments. It provides options in a way that some of the other short-lived credentials won’t. However, even if I possess that, it doesn’t mean that I don’t always need to be advancing my skills and competencies as I continue up my ladder.

That learning loop, to me, says that the future of education is going to use competency and skill to measure learning. That’s going to allow us much greater flexibility for awarding credentials. The lifelong learner is a reality that we need to make sure we’re constructing around. 

As for what I want to be remembered for, it comes down to what’s said of me. I want those who knew me to say that they were better because of their association with me. My primary responsibility is to motivate and inspire the people around me to do great things, to be a positive influence for change in the future that exists not only within higher education, but within our families, communities, and societies at large. There’s inherent worth in every individual, and I want them to see their own potential and strive for it. That’s how I try to live my life every day.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Listen to the full interview here.

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