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A WGU Student Answers Questions

Mitch, a WGU student, responded to some questions I asked.  My impression, based in what he wrote, is that Mitch is  using WGU not as a place to learn, i.e. as a university, but as a device to get degrees that acknowledge his work experience.
I very much like the idea of recognizing work experience as equivalent to college. The obvious question is whether WGU’s “competence based”  testing, a synonym for pass fail, is a good way to certify the equivalence of a college eduction?
Mitch writes:
Yes I did consider and compare costs.  The four considerations I made when deciding where to complete my baccalaureate education were, in order from most to least significant: Likelihood of success, cost in time, monetary costs, quality of instruction.  Admittedly my aim is not the acquisition of new knowledge, but an external validation of knowledge I already possessed so that potential employers wouldn’t have to take my word for it.  WGU offered, by my estimation the most effective blend of these attributes. I will address my thoughts on each of these attributes below.
I had been largely unsuccessful in traditional schools because of a tremendous frustration with the pacing.  I learn very quickly, faster than the typical student, and have little patience for review, additionally I have already been exposed to the vast majority of materials covered in my working life.  This lead to tremendous frustration, on many occasions I would stop attending courses altogether, read the textbook, attend on exam days and score in the 80th-100th percentile.  This was problematic for several reasons.  First attendance is very frequently a baked in component of evaluation and when this was the case my performance suffered greatly, including failing multiple courses in which I had scored 90%+ on the final examinations.  Furthermore this felt like a tremendous waste of my time.  One week of reading, 10 weeks of sitting on my hands, and then a final exam.   This lead to incredible frustration, disenfranchisement and eventual departure from the academy.  It was important to me that whatever school I returned to included mechanisms to prevent altogether or at least forestall this frustration so I would be able to succeed.  WGU met this need in its self directed/competency based, and time independent learning model.
As mentioned in the typical university setting courses are time fixed, they have a predetermined start date, and end date, and intermediate deadlines in between.  Looking at transfer guidelines for each of UW, WSU, EWU, CWU, Bellevue College, and University of Phoenix it would have taken me 4-5 years to complete the courses required for my program as a full time student.  Because WGU courses are time independent, the course continues only as long as the student needs to demonstrate mastery of the subject matter and no longer, I have been able to accelerate my progress significantly.  When contemplating enrollment I predicted I’d be able to finish my program in 3 WGU semesters, and its turned out it will take considerably less (if you apply a linear trend-line forecast to my current progress my degree will be complete 1/13, less than half of one semester).  I have already been working in my field for more than a decade and have reached the ceiling of what can be achieved without advanced degrees.  My peers, and most of my subordinates, have Master’s degrees.  Spending 5 more years in school covering subject matter I have already mastered at my current professional level to still be behind my peers in terms of education is far from ideal.
The two points above lead directly into a consideration of cost, since it is a function of time.  Current UW tuition and fees excluding books is $12,383 per year, WSU is $11,386, University of Phoenix is $14,040, compared to $6,070 at WGU (as an aside the WGU cost includes access to the schools digital library which includes downloadable copies of all textbooks so there is no additional cost for textbooks as there would be at other universities).  This low cost per year, coupled with the ability to accelerate my progress to finish in fewer years will result in tremendous savings as seen in the table below:
University Cost Per Year Predicted Years to Complete Degree Total Cost Savings by Attending WGU
UW  $          12,383.00 5  $   61,915.00  $                                       58,880.00
WSU  $          11,386.00 4  $   45,544.00  $                                       42,509.00
University of Phoenix  $          14,040.00 5  $   70,200.00  $                                       67,165.00
WGU  $            6,070.00 0.5  $     3,035.00  $                                                      –  
The final and least consequential metric I considered in determining where to attend was quality of instruction.  This was largely a non-factor for me, as I’ve already worked in my field for more than a decade and have therefore likely mastered the tasks required to work in my field, and am a self directed lifetime learner who seeks and acquires knowledge easily.
That being said I have found the quality of instruction to be more than satisfactory. The course mentors are subject matter experts in their chosen field.  This has been demonstrated to me by there articulate responses to questions which I’ve posed regarding applying the discipline or technique being taught to different and only tangentially related questions.  Their responses indicate they possess individual knowledge and are not simply reading from a script regarding how to solve business case X, Y or Z, but can artfully synthesize concepts from the subject matter and apply them to unique hypotheticals.  They have always been readily available to me through a variety of mediums: e-mail, online chat, phone, and predetermined office hours.
Regarding your question about coursework, yes all of the disciplines you asked about are included in the coursework.  Writing is well covered in its own right through three general writing courses, a business specific writing course, and evaluation of the students writing skills and articulation of a clear and logical argument are included in as criteria of all performance assessments (the WGU term for papers and projects, opposed to objective assessments, the WGU term for exams).  Math is similarly covered by four basic courses (basic mathematics, two courses on algebra, geometry, and measures, and a statistics course) and one business math course which covers linear programmatics, decision tree analysis, PERT analysis, Monte Carlo simulations, and optimum order/production quantity modeling.  Omitted from the WGU business mathematics requirements that would be covered by a traditional university is calculus.  I’m OK with this for two reasons, first I already have a self taught understanding of calculus that has more than met my needs, and more pertinent to this conversation in more than ten years working in the field I have had precisely four occasions which required me to perform calculus, therefore I conclude this is not a priority area for business education and can be learned on the job if and when the graduates job requires it.
Also worthy of note: in my experience the difficulty of WGU papers, projects and exams was equal to the difficulty of coursework I completed through traditional universities.  Furthermore with the exception of one course which leverages a CompTIA Project+ certification as its method of evaluation all the coursework was developed for WGU by WGU course mentors, evaluators and degree mentors working in concert with professionals in the field of study.  Its noteworthy that IT degrees deviate from this norm and do largely leverage 3rd party certifications as evaluations.
I disagree with your notion that there is a level at which intellectual interaction is required for learning to occur.  I think that all levels of learning will benefit from intellectual interaction, but at no level below subject matter origination (i.e. the creation of new science or understanding of mathematics and the natural world, one guy couldn’t validly derive new fundamental laws from CERN’s LHC for example, but that same one guy could totally get the established basics string theory by himself provided the right resources.)
I am not the typical WGU student, but nor am I unique among the student body.  WGU has been a godsend for me, I am very thankful it exists and recommend it for any mid-career individual who needs a degree to validate their skills and increase their upward mobility and career portability.
Steven, I hope that I’ve skillfully addressed your concerns and have opened your mind to the possibility that WGU has a place alongside traditional schools as a means to meet the states educational demands.
Mitch
Mitch: a lot of this is difficult to believe:
First, i noted that you listed the time for you to get a four year degree as 1/2 a year.  This suggests that most of what WGU is doing is testing your competence and attesting that your real world experience is equivalent to a degree.  That sounds great for you but not so great for an employer.  Why shouldn’t an employer see this as a a clever scheme to give folks “degrees” for passing standardized tests?  That sort of use of standardized testing is especially worrisome given that WGU treats all tests (or says that it does) as pass fail (what they called competency).
Your description of the curriculum heightens my worries.
e.g.
for math courses you list high schools subjects …  “basic” math, algebra and geometry.  You then go on to say that you have disdain for calculus … hardly a good argument for whether it is useful.  Aside from your attitude toward calculus, does this mean WGU only offers remedial math?
You extol the mentors BUT WGU explicitly says its mentors’ subject matter expertise do not have subject matter expertise and they do not list credentials that say otherwise. In many subjects they lack any faculty.  I wonder if you are not fooling yourself?  …confusing sales men with experts?
You describe writing courses, but again who is grading your writing since WGU does not employ faculty with subject matter expertise? Since we are talking business, suppose you .. as a student .. wrote an essay on labor practices at GE’s “Appliance City.”  Would a WGU mentor have the expertise in labor management to evaluate your essay?
Finally, I noted that you answered my simple question about costs with a long diversion into your own talents as a self paced student.  That was not my question .. though it did show some skill in changing the subject. 
Finally your choices of comparisons to WGU’s costs were, to say the least, odd.  Do you really think WGU is comparable to the UW or to WSU? Why did you leave out the  community colleges that actually do offer the same sort of low level courses you describe?   The interesting exception was the University of Phoenix. Here you seem to have used a rhetorical trick … essentially asserting that UP would require very little effort on your part to give you a degree vs UP.    


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