Federal Audit Says WGU Lacks Faculty Interaction, Recommending It Return...

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Federal Audit Says WGU Lacks Faculty Interaction, Recommending It Return $700 Million in Financial Aid

By Jeffrey R. Young     Sep 21, 2017

Federal Audit Says WGU Lacks Faculty Interaction, Recommending It Return $700 Million in Financial Aid

Western Governors University has long touted its unusual model of online teaching, which breaks up the traditional faculty role into pieces handled by different people, and grants degrees after students prove they’ve mastered competencies. But a scathing audit report released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General on Thursday found that there isn’t enough interaction between instructors and students to qualify for federal financial-aid programs, and recommends that the university be forced to return more than $712-million to the federal government.

In many ways the audit was a review of the competency-based education model, or CBE, which hundreds of traditional colleges have experimented with and which has been hailed as a way to broaden access to higher education. Higher education officials have been aware that the audit was happening since at least early 2016, and some were reportedly waiting to see the ruling before starting CBE efforts of their own.

The title of the 93-page report left no doubt of the inspector general’s conclusion: “Western Governors University Was Not Eligible to Participate in the Title IV Programs.

The report found that WGU’s offerings fit the definition of correspondence courses rather than online courses. A key reason was that it found that “the school’s faculty model did not ensure all courses were designed to offer regular and substantive interaction.”

There’s no doubt that the faculty model at WGU is unusual. As the university’s website explains, the work that one professor would do at a typical institution is split among four different types of people: “program mentors,” “course faculty,” “program faculty,” and “evaluators.” That means that it was one person’s job to answer questions about course material, and a different person’s job to actually grade assignments.

The inspector general said that this system did not add up to enough regular and substantive interaction to satisfy federal requirements.

Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University, said in an interview Thursday that “we believe the OIG’s opinion is wrong.”

“All the roles of the faculty are still there, especially from the student’s perspective,” he said of its teaching model. “They’re taking it upon themselves to say which of our faculty is faculty. It’s beyond the purview of the IG to do so. That is left to the accreditor by law, and the accreditor just reaffirmed that accreditation earlier this year.”

In documents it supplied to the inspector general during the process, WGU officials argued that their programs led to proven outcomes for students. The university has 85,000 students and more than 90,000 graduates.

At one point in its report, the inspector general said that determining whether WGU's education was good or not was not within its mandate. “We did not assess whether the school’s model was improving educational quality or expanding access to higher education,” it said. “Western Governors University did not provide any evidence to demonstrate that the courses that we determined met the regulatory definition of correspondence courses were distance education courses.”

That part of the report particularly frustrated some higher-education leaders, including Russ Poulin, director of policy and analysis for WCET, a nonprofit promoting e-learning programs. “It’s just flabbergasting,” he said. “How was WGU supposed to know exactly what criteria to use” in determining what constituted “regular and substantive interaction”? He said the Education Department has “not ever done a really good job of informing institutions of what standards they’re exactly going to be held to.”

What Now?

The inspector general does not have enforcement power, so its findings amount to recommendations to the U.S. Education Department.

Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University (which runs competency-based programs of its own), who served as a senior adviser to the under secretary of education, Ted Mitchell, during the Obama Administration, said he does not expect the Trump Administration to follow the recommendations. “I would have been surprised if the previous administration would have accepted them,” he said. “I would be shocked if WGU has to give money” back, he added.

“The good thing that could come out of this finding is that it may force a legislative change earlier than it would have otherwise,” said LeBlanc. “WGU has powerful friends on the Hill.”

The university was created by the governors of 19 Western states, most of them Republicans.

Even if WGU prevails, the report gives new life to questions about whether online programs, especially competency-based ones, are effective.

“Unfortunately what’s going to happen, the way this is playing out, is this will put doubt in the minds of students who might be interested in CBE, so it’s going to hurt the enrollments in those programs,” says Poulin.

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