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Western Governors University to Study How Online Programs Can Boost College Completion Rates - Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Research to focus on critical needs of underserved students: flexible schedules, personalized mentoring, accelerated learning options

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Western Governors University
Joan Mitchell – Director of PR

SALT LAKE CITY -- Today, Western Governors University (WGU), one of the nation’s leading online colleges, announced a $1.2 million investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to examine how its flexible, competency-based degree programs can help improve the nation’s low graduation rates among low-income and minority students ages 18-26.

In today’s economy, a college degree is a prerequisite for economic success. Yet where the United States was once first in the world in postsecondary completion rates, it now ranks tenth. Until recently, reform efforts and national policies have focused on increasing access to college and certification. But those efforts have done little to actually help students earn the credentials they need to obtain well-paying jobs and a better life.

A recent Gates Foundation-commissioned study conducted by Leo Burnett determined the challenge of juggling work and class schedules to be one of the largest hurdles facing young people as they try to earn a degree. While these students, who are disproportionately from low-income families, believe a stable work schedule would help them complete a postsecondary program, they also believe that access to affordable, high-quality online degree programs could greatly alleviate the problem. Many of these students also cite their preference for an accelerated program that will help them gain critical skills and join the workforce quickly, so they can support themselves and their families.

Nationwide, the number of people taking classes online continues to grow, and 20 percent of higher education students now take at least one online course. Newly released Department of Education research revealed that students who took all or part of their instruction online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through face-to-face instruction.

“WGU is committed to developing education models that work for American college students who can’t attend a traditional college or have to work,” said WGU President Robert Mendenhall. “This grant will help us identify and implement the factors that will help these students successfully complete their education.”

The study will extend through September of 2010, and will focus on:

  • The effectiveness of the WGU academic model for low-income students ages 18-26;
  • Interventions that improve the success and graduation rates for these students; and
  • Federal and state advocacy efforts that address issues surrounding technology-delivered, competency-based education.
The results of this research will immediately drive instructional intervention strategies at WGU.

The WGU study will also track students into the workplace after they complete their degrees to determine how effective their education was in helping them obtain and hold a job.

With the goal of getting more young people to and through college, the Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Success initiative aims to double the number of low-income students who earn a postsecondary degree or credential with genuine value in the workplace by age 26. Since 2000, the foundation has invested nearly $4 billion in grants in scholarships to improve opportunity in the United States by improving schools, raising college-ready graduation rates, and increasing college completion rates.

“In the United States today, there are millions of young adults who have the ability and desire to continue their education past high school. However, they are stalled by limited access to affordable, quality options and competing demands for their time and energy,” said Hilary Pennington, the director of Special Initiatives for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “WGU’s programs, which allow students to work full-time while they earn their degrees, offer a practical way to complete a quality college education. We look forward to working with the university to find ways to dramatically improve college completion rates for young, low-income students.”

WGU was created by 19 governors of western states to establish a competency-based learning model, share distance-learning resources, improve the quality of higher education, and expand access to underserved populations. Today it serves more than 13,000 students in all 50 states.

WGU degree programs are delivered using technology—individualized and self-paced with the one-on-one guidance and support of a faculty mentor. Undergraduate tuition is approximately $6,000 per year, roughly the same as a state college or university, and considerably less than other online universities.

Western Governors University
WGU is the only accredited online university in the U.S. offering competency-based degree programs. Now serving more than 14,000 students, the private, non-profit university has been a leader in online education for more than 10 years. WGU is the recipient of the USDLA 21st Century Award for Best Practices in Distance Learning for 2008, awarded in recognition of WGU’s success in expanding access to higher education. WGU has been honored as one of the 2008 Top 20 Military Friendly Colleges and Universities by Military Advanced Education magazine. WGU sponsors the Online Student Survival Guide, a blog that addresses many of the questions and daily concerns students attending any online college or university face.

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