At a time when many Americans acknowledge the need to continue education after high school—but are skeptical about the value of a college degree given increasing costs and debt—institutions are under increasing pressure to prove their value.
One institution that has focused on value from the time it was created is Western Governors University (WGU), which was designed with providing education that had “a path to opportunity,” says WGU’s president, Scott D. Pulsipher. In the mid-1990s, the governors of several Western states pooled together resources to start WGU, an online-only, nonprofit institution known for its competency-based teaching approach. The model allows students to demonstrate competency to move through the academic program at their own pace.
In recent years, WGU has worked with Gallup to better understand how its graduates compare on national measures of wellbeing that Gallup tracks of bachelor’s degree holders nationwide. In 2021, 77 percent of WGU graduates said their education was worth the cost, compared with 37 percent nationally.
Recently, higher education author and expert Jeff Selingo caught up with Pulsipher to see how WGU measures and explains value to the public and how its approach might be applied to higher education as a whole.
What does value in higher education mean to you and why is it so important to be talking about value at this moment?
Too often, people associate value with just the cost. For us at WGU, we believe that education has to be a pathway to opportunity. We also believe that you can measure whether or not the education is resulting in economic mobility and social mobility. A simple way of doing that is by asking these two questions: What was the total cost to complete or obtain the credential that you came to attain? What was the economic value of the opportunity you acquired as a result?
I think the value equation gets degraded quickly into a conversation about cost, but at the end of the day, are individuals getting a return on the investment they're asked to make in their education?
How could we capture those returns in a way that makes information useful to prospective students and other stakeholders?
At WGU, we start with the primary purpose of education: does it map to opportunity? And if so, you have to measure value on the basis for all individuals who matriculate: do a high rate of them actually complete and attain the credential? That is the first step.
The other part is ensuring that the learning, outcomes, and the curriculum all align with the skills, capabilities, and knowledge that are in desperate need and in demand in the workforce, so that the credential actually results in attaining opportunity.
At WGU, we use a measure that we call “factored graduate return.” It’s a way—albeit imperfect—to look at the net economic return for completing a program at WGU. To calculate it, we take the income gain per graduate within two years of completion, then multiply that by the remaining number of years the graduate has to the average age of retirement. That total benefit is divided by their total cost to complete. Factored graduate return gives us a sense how a WGU degree or credential results in real economic value to our students.
Why might such a calculation be imperfect?
Because it distills the value down to a very clear and direct number, which is income increase. Sometimes it’s hard to value if your economic benefit is a function of realized flexibility or optionality, for instance. Acquiring post-secondary credentials, particularly bachelors’ degrees, can afford greater choice in career pathways, which, in turn, provide individuals greater flexibility in setting their own schedules, or managing personal and professional balance, for example, compared to individuals who don't have a degree.
I think education presents optionality and overall well-being in a way that’s hard to put an economic number on.
That said, it’s absolutely better to have data and numbers. I have long said that WGU would not have grown and succeeded if it did not hold itself accountable to achieving the impact it set out to achieve for the individuals it primarily serves, and for the workforce it secondarily benefits. If we fail to set goals, or fail to obsess over the tracking of our progress, or fail to be transparent and open about it, then we would fail to learn from our gaps, mistakes, and failings in order to deliver the necessary innovation to power WGU forward.
Right, there are concerns that focusing on value/ROI puts too much emphasis on personal economic benefit and not enough on non-economic and the public benefit. How do we make value more than just about economic benefits?
The answer for me is both. First, we should be talking about the return on the investment that students should be able to attain because getting a better job, according to surveys, is why students are going to a post-secondary program. We can’t ignore that; we should be able to hold ourselves accountable to delivering on that promise.
I say yes to the other things, too, because there is something about learning and the ability to learn that is a uniquely human skill, which we will apply to future experiences, opportunities, and challenges.
There is a way to connect these two. To be an engaged citizen today, to actually understand and apply science, to be able to engage in matters of policy or social justice, the well-reasoned individuals often have that kind of educational experience that we provide in the first instance. They’re less subject to disinformation and misinformation. I do know if I can deliver on the promise first and foremost – that is, higher education provides a pathway to opportunity and mobility, then you’re also likely to get a more engaged, informed, and reasoned individual.
How could we better communicate the value of higher education, and institutions like yours specifically, to the broader public?
This may be one of those very difficult questions to answer, but one we should be asking ourselves more and more.
Our cultural narrative around college is still primarily fixated on what I like to reference as the romanticized Hollywood version of college: an emerging adult, high school graduate who needs to have the coming-of-age experience. So much of our discussion about value is about that, rather than the core and fundamental purpose of post-secondary education: to help individuals learn how to learn to acquire the knowledge, skills, and ability to help them determine their passions and the opportunities that they want to pursue. That’s one challenge.
Then the other challenge is this notion that somehow these Ivory Towers are supposed to be the center of all discussion and seeking of truth and learning. What happens then is you have the narrative right now saying higher education is brainwashing everyone and it’s tilting one political way or another. So that narrative gets away from the fundamental purpose as a place or means by which you can acquire the knowledge and social capital you need as the bridge from where you are to where you want to go.
At WGU, we have tried to pivot the narrative toward this: regardless of where you’re coming from, we are investing to create a roadmap and a pathway to opportunity that is personalized for you: your unique learning style, and your unique needs; so that you can be successful in changing your life for the better.
We need to focus more of our messaging and communication to show everyone that college is for them, in all its varied forms—that it’s not just this Hollywood version of college. At WGU, we start with the individual and not with the institution, so that it helps all those individuals, in all their splendid diversity, to see themselves in pathways of learning.
That’s different than institutions that market their preeminence, their reputation, their credibility and draw only those that may be like-minded, such that privilege propagates privilege.
Now, that works against selective admissions where they may have false capacity constraints. Things would look a lot different if U.S. News & World Report and other rankings, instead of rating the value of the institution on the basis of research or incoming test scores, for example, focused on how do individuals increase their economic benefit; or how do they expand their networks and social capital; or how do they improve completion for everyone; and how do they actually prepare graduates for work and get jobs as a result.