By Johann H. Neem
In 2011, after much controversy, the Washington’s Legislature recognized online Western Governors University, a Utah-based nonprofit with no professors, as a state public college. Soon after, WGU became eligible to receive State Need Grant funds, which provide support to Washington’s neediest students.
At the time, I wrote in the Seattle Times that WGU does not offer a “real college education,” because education “requires students to struggle with difficult material under the consistent guidance of good teachers. WGU denies students these opportunities.” Earlier this fall, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General agreed. It is time for the Legislature to do the same.
Federal law requires distance learning institutions to “support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor” to qualify for federal aid. After studying 61,180 students in 2013-14, the Department of Education concluded that at least 62 percent took one or more courses that did not meet the law’s expectations. In other words, students received credit but not instruction. It recommended that WGU refund the federal agency more than $700 million in student aid dollars and questioned its eligibility for future funding.
The department came very close to questioning whether WGU merited accreditation by the Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities. At issue is whether what WGU calls its “disaggregated faculty model” provides access to the kind of instruction that America’s taxpayers expect. At most colleges, students are taught by professors who design courses and mentor students in classrooms, labs, office hours and meetings.
WGU has no professors. Professors’ duties are parceled out. Curricular decisions are made by a small committee. Students interact with “student mentors,” “course mentors” and “evaluators.” The college commission called all these people faculty, despite having no teaching role. The Department of Education concluded: “only course mentors and evaluators, not student mentors, product managers, or council members, could reasonably be considered instructors.”
It’s not even clear that this is reasonable. WGU’s course mentors are trained to administer specific courses, but are not necessarily experts in their fields. Even with this low bar, the federal agency found that most WGU students barely interact with course mentors and evaluators. Unlike in most schools, where students can talk with their professors about their work and how to improve, WGU students have little substantive interaction with instructors.
WGU uses federal and state student aid to provide degrees to some of our state’s most needy students without offering them the education they deserve. Research confirms that first-generation students, many of whom are from minority backgrounds, need more interaction with teachers, not less. Moreover, cognitive scientists have demonstrated that deep learning depends on trusting relationships between students and teachers.
WGU claims that the Department of Education relied on an “antiquated” definition of a teacher. The truth is that WGU has been taking public dollars to provide students degrees without offering them a college education. As citizens, we should expect more. Given that WGU’s tuition is comparable to our state’s community colleges (and more for part-time students), and that our public four-year institutions remain accessible, State Need Grant money could be used more effectively.
Some may respond — indeed, many have — that professors like me are just protecting our turf. I admit to caring deeply about both my students’ education and the future of higher education. I will leave it to my fellow citizens to decide whether they want tax dollars going to an institution that misrepresents itself. I will also leave it to citizens to decide whether they honestly believe that WGU provides a serious education without allowing students access to qualified professors.
I only conclude that the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General, which has no interest in protecting professors’ turf, has determined that WGU may not merit access to federal student aid. I hope our state legislators will read the federal report and act soon to protect students from being exploited and public funds from being wasted.
Johann N. Neem is chairman and professor of history at Western Washington University in Bellingham and author of “Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America.”