Online education is growing in demand. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education the two fastest growing institutions from 2005–2015, outside of the for-profit sector, were predominantly online with Western Governors University (WGU), at 1,395%, and Southern New Hampshire University at 891% growth. These institutions are forcing traditional on-ground universities to rethink delivery and strategies for success.
Using the Wrong Tool to Measure Higher Ed Outcomes
Late last month, the Office of the Inspector General’s (OIG) recommended penalties for WGU—sparking ongoing debate about innovation in higher education versus risks of over-regulation. The OIG audit argues that WGU has offered courses that fall into the category of correspondence (not eligible for Title IV aid) and not distance education—based on its interpretation of regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously.
However, this does not match outcomes that are reported by Western Governors University. A National Survey on Student Engagement states that WGU students rate quarterly interactions with faculty and academic support at 12 and 10 percentage points, respectively, higher than the national average. Since this doesn’t correlate to the findings of the OIG, maybe it’s time to revisit how we define and measure educational activity.
Measuring Outcomes Accurately Is a Challenge for ALL Institutions
The original Higher Education Act (HEA) was signed into law in 1965 and has been reauthorized 10 times—most recently in 2008. A lot has changed in the years since the last authorization. Student demographics, needs, expectations, technology, skills, and employment requirements have all changed. Being able to measure an institution’s ability to meet these diversified needs is imperative. Higher education needs to be able to innovate quickly and efficiently. But the current structure of HEA does not allow for that.
Data collection and practice is as antiquated as the laws regulating the industry. Data is hard to aggregate across multiple institutions in order to identify trends, needs, and outcomes for higher education. In fact, in a recent PBS News Hour Chat Twitter Chat, it became apparent that the ability to measure outcomes accurately is a challenge for ALL institutions of higher education—not just those in an online environment.
WGU Enjoys High Success Rates—and Recognition for Responsible Borrowing Innovations
According to a WGU Harris Poll Employer Survey, some 99% of employers report that WGU graduates are meeting or exceeding expectations. Ninety-three percent reported graduate job performance as excellent or very good. The retention rate at Western Governors University in 2016 was 4% above the national average, while its six-year graduation rate showed a 10% improvement over the national average.
At the same time, WGU has been recognized by both the American Association of University Administrators (AAUA) and WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) for effectively and consistently reducing average student indebtedness through responsible borrowing initiatives. Since 2013, student borrowing at WGU has been reduced by 41%—which equates to a savings of $400 million in student loan debt. While achieving this, WGU also maintained a Cohort Default rate of 4.6%. For those who do not know, that’s s a number any institution would kill for—with the national average sitting at 11.5%.
So, why does the OIG suggest to the Department of Education that an institution that has data demonstrating high student satisfaction, high employer satisfaction, positive academic outcomes, low student borrowing—and students who are successfully employed and able to pay student loans—be cut off from Title IV funds? I am not an economist. But perhaps the misalignment between regulations and results should force us to reconsider whether we are, in fact, measuring what matters.