Postsecondary Learning

WGU President Scott Pulsipher on Bringing Customer-Centric Culture to Universities

By Tony Wan     Aug 15, 2017

WGU President Scott Pulsipher on Bringing Customer-Centric Culture to Universities

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once said he wanted competency-based college programs like Western Governors University “to be the norm” rather than the exception. So what’s in store for WGU today?

That’s among the questions we posed to Scott Pulsipher, who took the helm as the university’s president in March 2016. (Also: What is a former consultant-turned-technology executive doing running one of the most-cited experiments in higher education?)

The conversation was part of our Thought Leader Interview series on the future of education. Below is an edited and condensed version of the conversation, or watch the complete interview.

EdSurge: You come from a background that’s not exactly education focused. How did you come to this job?

Pulsipher: All of my background prior to WGU is mostly within the technology space. Early on it was in consulting, but I had been part of two startups. I’d also grown and started a new business inside Amazon. The recognition is that technology is probably one of the most important powering forces behind innovation that’s happening across a variety of different sectors, whether it’s retail, e-commerce, or whether it’s banking and payments online.

Where it has always been part of the DNA of WGU, is that the purpose of changing the lives of individuals and families through education, but having a passion for innovation and technology. We recognize that technology is dramatically improving access or increasing access to higher education while also improving the quality of it, so I think it’s a really good fit.

Did you get push-back about your lack of experience running a higher-ed institution?

Yeah. If there’s any push-back, it’s probably from more of the traditional models of higher education. I’d say, within WGU, there wasn’t a lot of pushback. In fact, they saw this kind of continue to advance our innovation edge as an institution and how we’re trying to improve access and increase access and improve quality.

How does the business experience prepare you for running a university? Or what do you bring out of that experience into your day-to-day role?

The biggest thing, I would say, is this: How do we make customers the focus? You have to understand that even in higher education we serve a customer—and we think first and foremost about the student. We think differently around how to utilize technology to advance outcomes and help the students progress. We think differently around faculty models. Everything that we do, we put the student at the center. And my background from Amazon, but even in general building a startup company, everything starts with that customer.

Western Governors has often been heralded as a pioneer of the competency-based education (CBE) model. That model is entering the mainstream vocabulary in education these days.

I think there’s clear recognition that the outcomes for students are quite incredible, that individuals who are demonstrating proficiency and competencies that are needed for them to be successful in whatever career or opportunity that they’re pursuing in the future. There’s ample evidence that suggests that the competency-based approach is very well aligned with the employers and those who are looking for, “I want proficiency and these particular expectations.”

Individuals come with different knowledge, they learn in different ways, they learn at different paces. So today I think CBE is very strong, with over 600 higher-ed institutions having competency-based courses or programs.

Do other university leaders tap your expertise about how to implement CBE within an institution that has a long history and legacy model?

Yeah, they do. We run seminars specifically about competency-based education, our approach to it, how you design for it—everything from the program design to the instruction, assessment and evaluation.

What are their biggest challenges?

Program design and development is very different. In a CBE model, you start with the known employment competencies and then you kind of work backwards from there. It’s a little different from the more academic-centered model, which asks, “No, I want this knowledge to be taught,” versus “Oh, what are you doing with that knowledge?” You know, what’s the opportunity you’re pursuing? Why are you pursuing education? Well, that program design is also one of the challenges.

I think the other challenges, honestly, are more of an institutional inertia problem. This would be the Clayton Christensen challenge of the incumbents. How do they disrupt themselves?

We didn’t have anything to disrupt. We could start completely fresh. That would be part of my advice: If you are to invest in CBE, you may have to entirely separate it from your core institution. Let this thing develop independently, and not be in any way encumbered by the existing stuff.

Tell us a little bit more about your students. Who are they?

Our average age is 37 years old, but they span from 18 years old to as old as 70. We’ve had graduates over 70 and a graduate as young as 17. Seventy percent of them are working full-time. I think the same number have families, so they have children and families and other commitments that are outside of their academic experience.

How long does it take, what is the range of the length of duration for it to take one of your students to finish their program and get a degree?

Some of the shortest duration has probably been under a year for a Master’s degree. Some have completed their Bachelor’s degree in a little over a year. For our most recent national commencement in January, the average time it took our Bachelor’s graduates to complete their Bachelor’s degree was two years and three months.

So I think there’s another important point associated with this—we have a flat tuition per six month term, so it’s about $6,000 a year. So when an individual can complete their Bachelor’s degree in two years and three months, the total cost is about $15,000.

Did I read somewhere that WGU hasn’t raised tuition since 2008?

Nine years. We haven’t raised our tuition, it’s been the same rate in that time period.

How do you make that happen?

One of the key things is that we’ve kept everything that we do focused on the academic outcomes and the opportunity outcomes for the students. So we don’t invest in a lot of superfluous things. If it’s not directly contributing to those student outcomes, then we’re not going to expend resources.

The other key thing is that we actually run in a very frugal, nonprofit manner. We are self-sustaining on our tuition rates. We run a very slim margin to make sure that we can continue to advance the innovation. Everything is centered on those academic and opportunity outcomes, and when you do that, then it’s possible. Part of our goal is to show that it is possible to do a much lower cost and run in a more affordable way.

One of the biggest themes these days is the education-to-employment pipeline. What is WGU’s strategy around partnering with corporations?

We’ve already been doing it. For a long time we’ve actually had a very strong set of partnerships that cross a wide array of leaders in their respective sectors. There are corporations that have large bodies of employees who need access to a post-secondary education, and they need to do so in an affordable, high-quality way. There are hundreds of institutions that we’ve been partnering with to ensure that their employees and those who need the access to these degree programs are aware of it.

In Indiana, when we had our commencement there last June, Dennis Murphy, the CEO of IU Health, was our commencement speaker. As he was shaking graduates’ hands, 24 of his own employees were walking across the stage who had access to these degree programs while they continued to work full-time with them, and so he was seeing the direct benefit of this.

What does growth look like? How do you define or try to measure growth as you think about your next two, five, ten years?

You know, we never talk about that. Because our priorities are increasing access and improving quality. I would say that our biggest priorities are, how do we continue to advance the academic quality of our program offering and the courses in those programs? I would say the other key area for us is really advancing the learning science and how that helps students increase their progress and the completion of courses and their cognitive outcomes. That’s where we’re investing a lot and we see technology significantly driving that.

Former education secretary Arne Duncan once said that he wants universities like WGU specifically to be the norm, and not the exception. Do you think the industry is getting there today?

Well, I do know that WGU is a norm. I don’t know how you can look at an institution with 80,000 students, over 80,000 alumni graduates—20,000 graduates this year—as not being something that is pretty much a standard. And if you look at the latest data, nearly 6 million students are now enrolled in online programs and courses. Technology-enabled learning is going to be the norm.

Postsecondary Learning

WGU President Scott Pulsipher on Bringing Customer-Centric Culture to Universities

By Tony Wan     Aug 15, 2017

WGU President Scott Pulsipher on Bringing Customer-Centric Culture to Universities

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once said he wanted competency-based college programs like Western Governors University “to be the norm” rather than the exception. So what’s in store for WGU today?

That’s among the questions we posed to Scott Pulsipher, who took the helm as the university’s president in March 2016. (Also: What is a former consultant-turned-technology executive doing running one of the most-cited experiments in higher education?)

The conversation was part of our Thought Leader Interview series on the future of education. Below is an edited and condensed version of the conversation, or watch the complete interview.

EdSurge: You come from a background that’s not exactly education focused. How did you come to this job?

Pulsipher: All of my background prior to WGU is mostly within the technology space. Early on it was in consulting, but I had been part of two startups. I’d also grown and started a new business inside Amazon. The recognition is that technology is probably one of the most important powering forces behind innovation that’s happening across a variety of different sectors, whether it’s retail, e-commerce, or whether it’s banking and payments online.

Where it has always been part of the DNA of WGU, is that the purpose of changing the lives of individuals and families through education, but having a passion for innovation and technology. We recognize that technology is dramatically improving access or increasing access to higher education while also improving the quality of it, so I think it’s a really good fit.

Did you get push-back about your lack of experience running a higher-ed institution?

Yeah. If there’s any push-back, it’s probably from more of the traditional models of higher education. I’d say, within WGU, there wasn’t a lot of pushback. In fact, they saw this kind of continue to advance our innovation edge as an institution and how we’re trying to improve access and increase access and improve quality.

How does the business experience prepare you for running a university? Or what do you bring out of that experience into your day-to-day role?

The biggest thing, I would say, is this: How do we make customers the focus? You have to understand that even in higher education we serve a customer—and we think first and foremost about the student. We think differently around how to utilize technology to advance outcomes and help the students progress. We think differently around faculty models. Everything that we do, we put the student at the center. And my background from Amazon, but even in general building a startup company, everything starts with that customer.

Western Governors has often been heralded as a pioneer of the competency-based education (CBE) model. That model is entering the mainstream vocabulary in education these days.

I think there’s clear recognition that the outcomes for students are quite incredible, that individuals who are demonstrating proficiency and competencies that are needed for them to be successful in whatever career or opportunity that they’re pursuing in the future. There’s ample evidence that suggests that the competency-based approach is very well aligned with the employers and those who are looking for, “I want proficiency and these particular expectations.”

Individuals come with different knowledge, they learn in different ways, they learn at different paces. So today I think CBE is very strong, with over 600 higher-ed institutions having competency-based courses or programs.

Do other university leaders tap your expertise about how to implement CBE within an institution that has a long history and legacy model?

Yeah, they do. We run seminars specifically about competency-based education, our approach to it, how you design for it—everything from the program design to the instruction, assessment and evaluation.

What are their biggest challenges?

Program design and development is very different. In a CBE model, you start with the known employment competencies and then you kind of work backwards from there. It’s a little different from the more academic-centered model, which asks, “No, I want this knowledge to be taught,” versus “Oh, what are you doing with that knowledge?” You know, what’s the opportunity you’re pursuing? Why are you pursuing education? Well, that program design is also one of the challenges.

I think the other challenges, honestly, are more of an institutional inertia problem. This would be the Clayton Christensen challenge of the incumbents. How do they disrupt themselves?

We didn’t have anything to disrupt. We could start completely fresh. That would be part of my advice: If you are to invest in CBE, you may have to entirely separate it from your core institution. Let this thing develop independently, and not be in any way encumbered by the existing stuff.

Tell us a little bit more about your students. Who are they?

Our average age is 37 years old, but they span from 18 years old to as old as 70. We’ve had graduates over 70 and a graduate as young as 17. Seventy percent of them are working full-time. I think the same number have families, so they have children and families and other commitments that are outside of their academic experience.

How long does it take, what is the range of the length of duration for it to take one of your students to finish their program and get a degree?

Some of the shortest duration has probably been under a year for a Master’s degree. Some have completed their Bachelor’s degree in a little over a year. For our most recent national commencement in January, the average time it took our Bachelor’s graduates to complete their Bachelor’s degree was two years and three months.

So I think there’s another important point associated with this—we have a flat tuition per six month term, so it’s about $6,000 a year. So when an individual can complete their Bachelor’s degree in two years and three months, the total cost is about $15,000.

Did I read somewhere that WGU hasn’t raised tuition since 2008?

Nine years. We haven’t raised our tuition, it’s been the same rate in that time period.

How do you make that happen?

One of the key things is that we’ve kept everything that we do focused on the academic outcomes and the opportunity outcomes for the students. So we don’t invest in a lot of superfluous things. If it’s not directly contributing to those student outcomes, then we’re not going to expend resources.

The other key thing is that we actually run in a very frugal, nonprofit manner. We are self-sustaining on our tuition rates. We run a very slim margin to make sure that we can continue to advance the innovation. Everything is centered on those academic and opportunity outcomes, and when you do that, then it’s possible. Part of our goal is to show that it is possible to do a much lower cost and run in a more affordable way.

One of the biggest themes these days is the education-to-employment pipeline. What is WGU’s strategy around partnering with corporations?

We’ve already been doing it. For a long time we’ve actually had a very strong set of partnerships that cross a wide array of leaders in their respective sectors. There are corporations that have large bodies of employees who need access to a post-secondary education, and they need to do so in an affordable, high-quality way. There are hundreds of institutions that we’ve been partnering with to ensure that their employees and those who need the access to these degree programs are aware of it.

In Indiana, when we had our commencement there last June, Dennis Murphy, the CEO of IU Health, was our commencement speaker. As he was shaking graduates’ hands, 24 of his own employees were walking across the stage who had access to these degree programs while they continued to work full-time with them, and so he was seeing the direct benefit of this.

What does growth look like? How do you define or try to measure growth as you think about your next two, five, ten years?

You know, we never talk about that. Because our priorities are increasing access and improving quality. I would say that our biggest priorities are, how do we continue to advance the academic quality of our program offering and the courses in those programs? I would say the other key area for us is really advancing the learning science and how that helps students increase their progress and the completion of courses and their cognitive outcomes. That’s where we’re investing a lot and we see technology significantly driving that.

Former education secretary Arne Duncan once said that he wants universities like WGU specifically to be the norm, and not the exception. Do you think the industry is getting there today?

Well, I do know that WGU is a norm. I don’t know how you can look at an institution with 80,000 students, over 80,000 alumni graduates—20,000 graduates this year—as not being something that is pretty much a standard. And if you look at the latest data, nearly 6 million students are now enrolled in online programs and courses. Technology-enabled learning is going to be the norm.

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