Home Competency Based Education Western Governors University – Measurable Academic Innovation Success, Enabled by Technology

Western Governors University – Measurable Academic Innovation Success, Enabled by Technology


WGU is a model for many of the ways that technology can facilitate instruction, and enable the non-traditional student to earn a higher education credential.

This is the second in a series of articles celebrating educational institutions that have achieved proven, measurable success with the integration of technology into their instructional processes. This week we look at Western Governors University and the empirical evidence that demonstrates how this technology-enabled academic institution has been an outstanding model of innovation.

The Back Story
WGU is a non-profit online educational institution chartered in 1996 by a coalition of 19 United States Governors seeking to address rapid population growth and confronted by limited public funds for educational services. The governors enlisted the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems to help design the newly envisioned university.

Five themes formed the underlying goals of the envisioned institution:

  • Responsiveness to employment and societal needs.
  • A focus on competency-based education.
  • Expanding access.
  • Cost-effectiveness.
  • Development of a technology infrastructure.

The governors also insisted that WGU be affordable, flexible, and student-focused. They serve as many students as possible, across the spectrum of minorities, first-generation college students, students with modest or limited incomes, and those whose lives or geographic locations do not allow them to attend traditional, campus-based colleges. WGU is accredited by four of the regional accrediting institutions in the U.S. and has flourished into a national university, serving more than 30,000 students from all 50 states, yet remains non-bureaucratic and innovative.

The Technology
While WGU's approach to higher education comprises innovations beyond just the technological, the technology is clearly at the core of their highly successful web-based model. Here are a few of the ways they have leveraged technologies to deliver and ensure a high quality experience for their students and facilitate meeting learning outcomes and retention:

  • Built on a foundation of technology: WGU is a web-based university, built around the Courses of Study software that comprises their instructional delivery and management system.
  • Flexible Course Delivery: Their online course delivery is the reason they can meet the needs of busy non-traditional students, making attending college and attaining a credential possible for busy working adults as well as the high school graduate whose situation makes it untenable to devote themselves to full time study, or travel to a ground university.
  • A Competency-based Approach: One of the things that separate's WGU from many other institutions of higher education is that course completion is based on demonstrating mastery of the subject matter through challenging assessments, and the traditional measure of “seat time” plays no part in it. The faster you can complete your assessments, the faster you’ll graduate (and students pay for time instead of credits, so the less time it takes to graduate, the less costly their degree is). Technology comes into play here because computer-based assessments are one of several ways in which those competencies are demonstrated.
  • Learning Communities: Another support element provided by WGU are learning communities, facilitated through an online portal. There are two kinds of student learning communities: Program Communities, designed to build relationships between students and mentors and focused on expanding your knowledge in your overall field of study; and Learning Communities, which provide a virtual space where subject and assessment specific information can be obtained for use during competency development.
  • Online Library: WGU's Library includes nearly 100,000 eText books and is available 24/7, again made possible by technology and the Internet.

The Results
This is what it all comes down to, and Western Governors University has an impressive track record of measurable successes that testify to the impact of their approach. Here's just a few of the results WGU can boast to prove out their institution's effectiveness:

  • The University’s current 13-month retention rate (the percentage of students who return after their first year) is 79%, which is higher than the average for U.S. public colleges and universities.
  • WGU graduates perform well on national discipline-specific exams:
    • National Business Exams – The Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) Professional in Human Resources (PHR) certification exam: National Average is 57% vs. WGU Average of 64%
    • National Teachers Exams -PRAXIS Math Exam: WGU pass rate is 74%;  Percent of WGU students in top 15% Nationally = 37%
    • PRAXIS Elementary Education Pedagogy Exam:WGU pass rate is 81%; Percent of WGU students in top 15% Nationally = 23%
  • What Employers Say About WGU Graduates:
    • 98 percent of employers rate WGU graduates equal to or above their counterparts who graduated from other colleges and universities.
    • 97 percent of employers rate WGU graduates’ preparation for the workforce as good or excellent.
  • Check out their “Student Learning Results” page to learn more about their performance results.

Western Governors University continues to receive praise for its academic model and to enhance its reputation with employers for the emphasis on graduating highly competent professionals. US Department of Education Arne Duncan recently stated, “While such programs [like Western Governors University] are now the exception, I want them to be the norm.” Not only is this technology-rooted model higher education delivering on the promise of education for their students, they are a beacon of innovative success and leadership amongst educational institutions.

Related Posts (if the above topic is of interest, you might want to check these out):
Education Technology Success Story – Carpe Diem Collegiate High School

Mark Milliron’s Sobering, Honest, and Inspiring Keynote Address at CT2012
12 Common Education Technology Implementation Problems and How to Prevent and Remediate Them


  1. […] So this is the first challenge – getting regulators to agree to allow schools to dispense with the Carnegie unit in favor of a CBE approach. The good news is that this has happened in a few cases, at both the high school and higher education level. Western Governors University is one of several accredited institutions of higher education built around Competency Based Education (and several other innovations) and it is considered by many to be a success. […]

  2. “M. Borrego” – Thanks for the mention of Lumina Degree Qualifications Profile, I had not heard of it. I am placing it on my list of apps/services to learn more about and consider posting about!

    Thanks to both of you for your comments – it would certainly be a shame for anyone to work through a degree program and then learn that it is not accredited. This page provides more complete information about WGU’s accreditations: http://www.wgu.edu/why_WGU/WGU_accreditation

  3. Agreed. There are also still issues with graduation rates, which I believe have lately been only as high as 18% and in some years lower than that. This is an interesting development, but I am not ready to call it a success just yet.

    Will there be a blog post on the Lumina Degree Qualifications Profile, which is another way to approach competency-based education?

  4. While competency-based education is an innovative direction for higher education, some of the programs at this university are not accredited. This poses a significant problem for those who graduate from these programs and then seek employment in fields in which accreditation are required. While Western Governors states that they discuss the accreditation — this discussion is from the overall perspective of the university (macro level) and not always at the program/discipline (micro level) which is where graduate employment opportunities are most significantly impacted. In this age of higher education accountability, this will need to be attended to if this institution wishes to make the impact on competency-based learning that we all hope it will make.


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