Don’t expect to drive through the beautiful campus of Western Governors University. There is no campus. Established in 1997 by 19 western governors—not including Kansas—to “solve” the teacher shortage of the prior decade, this “university” is completely online. And it operates on the same philosophy as the GED: forget actual coursework and just take a test.
The General Educational Development certificate (G.E.D.) has earned a poor reputation. With a few exceptions, students who drop out of high school but take the G.E.D. continue to earn wages equivalent to those who never completed high school. Those who attempt post-secondary community colleges or universities drop out at a much higher rate than those who completed regular high school. And the military finds over the last two decades that nearly 40 percent of G.E.D. and virtual school students fail to complete their three years of military commitment.
Similar to the G.E.D., Western Governors University substitutes the test for the education. Instead of awarding credit hours, it is “competency based,” simply another term for test-driven. This philosophy for training teachers may sound good until you apply it to other professions. Skip medical school and go straight to the medical boards—pass the boards and you are a medical doctor. Skip law school and go straight to the bar exams—pass the bar and you are a lawyer.
Of course you do not learn to conduct surgery or prepare a court case in studying for an exam. Veteran teachers know that our exams are only a partial dipstick measure of the richer experiences that students gain in classes. Our tests do not replace our coursework.
I train biology teachers, so I was particularly interested in how WGU credits lab work. They charge an extra $350 and send the student a “home science lab” so they can do shoe box experiments. I look down my science hall at the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of DNA analyzers, centrifuges, autoclaves and other equipment that a real university uses to train real biology teachers. Modern biology uses CSI-type equipment; WGU sends their biology teachers a Mr. Wizard kit for the kitchen sink!
“A scholar must not confuse an education with an examination” cautioned Chu Hsi, a Chinese educator in the year 1199. Yet 900 years later, this operation that abandons real experiences for testing has hoodwinked both regional accreditors and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education into blessing this college G.E.D.
It’s real appeal is “convenience.” The fact that it is cheaper than the for-profits and was started by governors gives it a political legitimacy that it does not deserve.
But the convenience of staying home combined and taking tests instead of courses goes a long way.
Governors of Texas, Washington and Indiana—apparently all education experts—have just welcomed WGU into their states, not just for teacher education, but so students who do not succeed in regular colleges and universities can “succeed” at WGU in a broader range of fields. Stop and think just what that statement is really saying.
The dilution of the value of U.S. college degrees has already become a common topic at European and Asian education conferences.
So far, Kansas is holding the line—requiring genuine coursework and real universities.
But if you see Western Governors “University” come to Kansas, you will know that the decline of bonafide university credentials is underway in Kansas too.