Despite its name and its headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, Western Governors University bills itself as “a university without boundaries.” Nineteen United States governors, including then-Utah governor Mike Leavitt, devised the concept for this public online university in 1995, recognizing the potential and opportunities of distance learning. The creation of an online university would also address one of the problems of higher education in the western U.S.: limited funding for education combined with a population boom.
After agreeing to collaborate on a fully online university, the governors recruited the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education to aid in its establishment. Western Governors University was chartered in 1996 and incorporated as a private university the following year. By 1999, students were able to begin enrolling.
The nonprofit school strives to use online learning as a way to provide students with access to affordable higher education. Rather than focus on one demographic, Western Governors aims to educate as many students as possible from all walks of life, from students of modest income levels to people whose geographic locations or busy schedules make them unable to attend traditional college classes.
Today, Western Governors University is a thriving online educational resource, with 23,000 students from all 50 states. In just over 10 years since it began accepting students, the university has opened a satellite office in Indiana. It continues to be supported by the governors of the states which originally collaborated to establish it, and has it recently expanded into Washington State after a partnership approval was signed by Governor Christine Gregoire.
In 2008, Western Governors University garnered accolades from the United States Distance Learning Association in the form of two International Distance Learning awards. The university won the 21st Century Award for Best Practices in Distance Learning, a distinction that recognizes the school’s success in providing greater access to higher education to students seeking bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The award is also a nod to the university’s status as the nation’s first competency-based online university, meaning that Western Governor’s University takes its students’ real-world knowledge and skills into account, as opposed to relying solely on credit-hours. The school’s other USDLA award went to the then-executive director of its Teachers College, Dr. Janet Schnitz, for Outstanding Leadership by an Individual in the Field of Distance Learning.
Western Governors University holds both national and regional accreditation, with the Distance Education and Training Council awarding it national accreditation. The school is regionally accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. Several of its specific programs have also earned accreditation of their own.
WGU offers more than 40 bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, with colleges of business, information technology, health professions, and a Teachers College. The College of Health Professions focuses largely on nursing degrees while the Teachers College features programs of study encompassing nearly all levels of teacher education, from early childhood through high school.
Most Popular Fields of Study
At Western Governors University, degree programs are not taught by the quarter or semester. Instead, programs begin on the first of each month and last for six months, so applicants’ enrollment dates will determine when their terms end. For example, students who begin classes on April 1 would end their terms on Oct. 31. These students would then begin their second terms on Nov. 1.
Applicants to undergraduate programs should hold a high school diploma or GED certificate and should submit official transcripts from their high schools and/or any community or four-year colleges they have attended. Certain programs also carry extra admission requirements. The College of Information Technology, for example, requires applicants to submit verification of any IT certifications they have received, whether through classroom or work experience. Applicants to this college also need to demonstrate prior experience through either an associate’s degree, transferable certifications dated within the past five years, or a resume outlining at least three years of work experience in the information technology field.
Applicants to WGU’s graduate programs must submit transcripts from an accredited institution where they have received a bachelor’s degree, as well as transcripts from all other colleges attended. As with undergraduate programs, certain master’s programs have additional admissions requirements, such as the College of Business. Graduate applicants to one of the university’s MBA programs need to submit a resume verifying at least three years of work experience in the fields of business or industry or with a nonprofit organization.
Residents of Tennessee and Kansas may need to meet additional, state-specific requirements.
All applicants to Western Governors University, regardless of undergraduate or graduate status, must interview with one of the university’s enrollment counselors to determine whether WGU is a good fit. Interviews will cover such areas as applicants’ backgrounds, prior academic experience, and how much time they are able to commit to their studies.
The university does not require applicants to submit entrance exam scores, such as ACT or SAT numbers. However, applicants must pass the online WGU Collegiate Readiness Assessment.
Western Governors University prides itself on being a very affordable institution, saving students from the burden of paying off large student loans after graduation. Even so, roughly half of all undergraduate students received financial aid of some type during the 2008-09 academic year.
WGU is one of the first online universities to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education to offer its students federal financial aid. Funding generally comes in the form of grants, scholarships, or loans. To receive federal aid, students must first fill out the FAFSA form, which determines their eligibility for such funds as federal Pell grants, which are available to students who have not yet obtained a bachelor’s degree. These grants can provide as much as $5,550 for an academic year and do not need to be repaid.
Another source of financial aid that does not require repayment is a scholarship. WGU students may be eligible for any of several scholarships sponsored by foundations, corporations, or the federal government. Scholarships may be based on academic merit, financial need, affiliation with certain groups or fields of study, or some combination of these criteria. The AT&T-WGU Native American Scholarship, for instance, awards up to $7,500 to students who are members of Native American tribes and who wish to earn a degree in order to have a positive impact on their communities. The ‘Go Further’ with WGU Scholarship gives up to $2,000 to adults with prior college experience who want to go back to school. WGU also offers numerous scholarship opportunities for veterans and current military personnel, as well as their spouses.
Most WGU students will also qualify for some type of student loan, whether federal or private. Loans must be paid back, but with subsidized Federal Direct Loans, the federal government will pay the interest as long as the student is in school at least part-time.
New students must complete the financial aid application process by the 18th day of the month prior to their intended start date.
Student Financial Aid Details
The student body of Western Governors University is a far-reaching and diverse group. Hailing from all 50 U.S. states and several overseas military bases, students range in age from 20 to 60. As of 2008, the median age of a WGU student was 36. Most already have some college experience under their belts, and the majority are working at least part-time while they take classes.
Undergraduates make up more than 70 percent of the student body, and more than half of all students are female. While most are of Caucasian or non-Hispanic backgrounds, almost 20 percent are minorities, and 41 percent are first-generation college students.
Western Governors University may not have a physical campus, but that does not mean its students are alone, thanks to mentors and an online student community. Each WGU student is assigned a mentor who serves as a coach, adviser, and a source of support throughout the student’s academic endeavors. Via email, Web conferences or telephone, mentors help students devise degree plans based on their needs, backgrounds, and strengths. Mentors help students stay focused on these plans and schedule assessments.
There are two kinds of student communities: Program communities and learning communities. Program communities focus on networking and building knowledge in students’ specific fields of study. They are designed to strengthen the relationships between students and mentors. Learning communities are virtual communities in which students can get academic help through small, online group sessions.
Student Enrollment Demographics
Student Graduation Demographics
As of 2011, Western Governors University employed more than 700 full-time faculty members and more than 100 part-time faculty members, serving as student mentors, course mentors, or program faculty.
Approximately three-quarters of student mentors and nearly all course mentors hold graduate degrees, and many have earned Ph.D. degrees in their respective fields.
Student mentors are the main source of faculty support at WGU. They guide students through their coursework from the first day of enrollment until graduation, serving as teachers, advisers, and motivators. They are in frequent contact with students and are charged with helping them stay on track and complete their courses successfully and on time.
Course mentors are experts in their respective subjects, and their primary responsibility is to answer specific questions a student may have about coursework and to tutor students through any trouble spots they may encounter.
Program faculty do not actually teach. Instead, they use their academic expertise to work with academic councils on the design and development of the university’s courses of study. They work closely with student mentors and course mentors to make sure students are getting the most out of their WGU experience.
- Koepp. Paul. “Western Governors University expanding to Washington State.” Desert News. Salt Lake City, UT. 28 Apr. 2011. Print.
- United States Distance Learning Association. USDLA Recognizes Western Governors University With Two Major Distance Learning Awards. Toronto: Market Wire, 2008. Print.
- WGU Online University, Salt Lake City, UT. | Online Degree Programs, Accredited Bachelor’s and Master’s. Web. 16 May 2011. <http://www.wgu.edu/>.
- “Western Governors University Tuition, Costs and Financial Aid – CollegeData College Profile.” CollegeData: College Search, Financial Aid, College Application, College Scholarship, Student Loan, FAFSA Info, Common Application. Web. 16 May 2011. <http://www.collegedata.com/cs/data/college/college_pg03_tmpl.jhtml?schoolId=1931>.