Contributed by Advance 360 Education
Guest: Scott Pulsipher, President, Western Governors University
Guest Bio: Recognized by EdTech Digest as one of the “Top 100 Influencers in EdTech,” Scott Pulsipher has been President of Western Governors University (WGU) since 2016. The Harvard MBA graduate has created a student-first environment at WGU by using technology and data to improve everything from learning outcomes to overall student well-being. Among his areas of expertise are leadership, tech education, disruptive innovation, higher ed access and innovation, product management and e-commerce.
Before joining WGU, Pulsipher led several tech-based, business-to-consumer (B2C) companies including Amazon and Sterling Commerce (IBM) as well as two successful start-ups across different sectors. In addition to his role at WGU, he serves on several higher education and technology boards including the Committee for Economic Development and the American Council on Education.
Episode Summary: A conversation with Scott Pulsipher, as he gives us priceless insights into the winning formula he and his team have used to propel his institution to amazing success in online learning, competency-based learning with more than 120,000 current online students and a global network of more than 170,000 graduates.
WGU President Scott Pulsipher on Their Competency-Based Teaching Model
“What’s your why?”
In teaching first-year experience courses over the past decade-plus, that’s the question I ask students, on both the first and last day of class each fall. It’s a question posed to help students think about their true individual purpose from an academic and professional standpoint.
Why do I ask that particular question?
Because uncovering their “why” helps put everything in focus, academically and professionally. It creates meaning and purpose and lays the blueprint for achieving their educational and professional objectives. By discovering their “why,” students can advance towards end goals with confidence and the internal resilience needed to overcome any roadblocks.
At Western Governors University (WGU), one of the nation’s largest online non-profit, private institutions with a total enrollment of close to 150,000 the concept of discovering and knowing your “why” is a guiding tenant. From an institutional leadership standpoint, it continues to be a ponderance of WGU President Scott Pulsipher in developing institutional objectives, establishing desired learning outcomes, keeping a keen focus on students, and implementing what’s become one of higher education’s most innovative and effective teaching approaches, competency-based teaching. It’s a teaching model which allows students to demonstrate competency and move through academic programs and courses at their own pace.
A Serendipitous Arrival at WGU
Long a disruptor, innovator, and successful executive, Pulsipher’s arrival onto the higher education scene was a somewhat serendipitous one. Having worked mainly in tech-based, customer-focused businesses outside of the education industry, including leadership roles at Amazon, Needle, Inc., Sterling Commerce, Yantra Corporation and The Monitor Group, everything sort of fell into place for Pulsipher upon moving to Salt Lake City, UT to work for a new start-up. However, before leaving Amazon, he had developed a relationship with a corporate recruiter whose company just so happened to be leading WGU’s search.
Moreover, before moving to Utah, Pulsipher had already begun to develop an interest in and appreciation for education's role in society.
Pulsipher comments, “Through this set of circumstances, I would say there was a real combination of serendipitous types of things where the executive recruiter who already knew me, knew of my background in technology and how that could be applied to disrupting and reinventing the way things happen in other industries like higher education. At the same time, I had developed a real passion around the mission of education and how it can be the biggest catalyst for people to change their lives.”
Towards the end of the recruiting process, Pulsipher was invited to attend a few WGU graduation weekend events. That’s when he fell in love with WGU and realized the institution shared the same beliefs about the power of education to help change an individual’s trajectory in life.
He recalls, “The night before graduation, I attended a graduate dinner at which I witnessed a truly authentic and emotional engagement between faculty & mentors and soon-to-be graduates, the majority of which they were just meeting for the first time. In listening to students speak, I could feel their overwhelming sense of gratitude and satisfaction for the opportunity and people at WGU.”
As he prepares to begin year seven, Pulsipher says he’s still “loving every minute of it.”
Reinvigorating the Promise of Higher Education Through Disruptive Innovation
Even before joining WGU, Pulsipher felt a solid need to reinvigorate the promise of higher education and the career pathways it intended to create – for every student.
In his eyes, the ultimate outcome is for education to help students achieve economic mobility.
At WGU, there are four fundamental elements at play in achieving this goal:
Quality & Relevancy of Education
In contemplating access, quality, and outcomes, WGU builds its framework around what achieving each of those things looks like and means for actual students. As the WGU President suggests, “The thing I think defines everything about what we do at WGU is that we put the student at the center of everything because this is for whom the promise must work.”
Being so heavily focused on student outcomes, WGU develops program curricula with learning outcomes mapped directly to the core competencies and skills students need to succeed in their respective careers.
Regarding access, learning has remained a constant, whereas time is a variable.
By putting students in control of time (the variable), a function that provides truly individualized terms and timelines for course completion, WGU has maintained ongoing educational opportunities while allowing students to progress through individual courses and programs at their desired pace.
While realizing the importance of providing students with variable course completion timelines, the WGU’s commitment to creating intentional 1:1 faculty and student interactions must continue, as creating individual learning and teaching opportunities is central to the institution’s mission.
Even the most engaging, customizable, and occupationally specific academic offerings lose value if students face steep tuition and heavy student loan debt after they graduate,
To provide the benefits mentioned above without financially weighing down students, WGU simply charges a flat six-month tuition fee. When paired with the competency-based learning model, students can complete as many or as few courses as they wish over each six-month period. As a result, the average student loan debt of WGU graduates has decreased by more than $5,000 over the past five years and the percentage of WGU graduates with student loans has dropped to less than 60%.
One thing that continues to make WGU so successful is the institution’s obsession with continuously working to improve student success rates and outcomes such as progress course completion rates, persistence, attainment rates, job placement and promotion percentages and student satisfaction.
Pulsipher adds, “We measure everything because ultimately, students are the ones we're serving, and we have to make the model work for them.”
Final Thoughts: WGU’s Competency-Based Teaching Model
While the vast majority of colleges and universities, along with their respective leadership and faculty, remain opposed to the possibility of implementing a competency-based teaching model, WGU and President Scott Pulsipher have been higher education trailblazers slowly setting a new standard.
At WGU, the competency-based teaching model allows students to take courses at their own pace, receive 1:1 faculty and student interaction that enhances learning, feel comfortable knowing there’s a one-size-fits-all tuition model and carry far less debt than they would at most other institutions.
And for a little social proof, the number one factor driving WGU’s high referral rates among alumni is that over 72% of them say that WGU was worth the cost, meaning they are getting a return on the investment they made.
Advance 360 Education Perspective
The competency-based model WGU is offering students is very impressive and it's a wonder why more institutions don’t offer a similar set-up. Many schools tout accessibility and affordability in their marketing, but very few schools practice this at the level we see from WGU. We see schools offering accessibility in the form of classes at various times of the day for full-time working students to be able to schedule their classes around their job or online programs giving students a week to finish each section. However, WGU taking convenience a step further to allowing students to take the time they need to finish each course is going against the grain in the Education industry – something we believe more institutions need to be doing as higher education is constantly evolving. New and different ways to access higher education courses continue to surface and competition is only getting fiercer.
The tuition model WGU has is also very different than most institutions. We typically see universities touting that they haven’t increased their tuition rates in several years, but it is rare to have a school offer a flat fee for six months where students have the opportunity to finish as much or as little as they can and/or want to during that time. This structure adds even more value to the accessibility offering of the university as well.
In a time where it often takes two incomes to live comfortably and working a full-time job or multiple jobs is a must to make ends meet, WGU has provided a space where all types of students are truly welcome. Higher education can often be stringent in attendance, meeting deadlines, requirements, etc. but the structure President Pulsipher has led WGU in creating shows they have their students' personal and professional lives as well as educational challenges in mind as they carry out their mission.
Disruption, Leadership in Crisis, and Re-Imagining the Promise of Higher Education
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See this video of Scott with future #EdUp guest Maria Flynn at SXSW EDU 2021 talking about the edges of learning & work: