Affordable, non-traditional college education | Don Brunell

Imagine 350 college grads walking across the stage to receive their degrees in a ceremony with no valedictorian and no student honors. That is exactly what the 2014 graduating class looked like when WGU Washington held its third graduation ceremony earlier this month.

Imagine 350 college grads walking across the stage to receive their degrees in a ceremony with no valedictorian and no student honors.  That is exactly what the 2014 graduating class looked like when WGU Washington held its third graduation ceremony earlier this month.

Sounds unconventional and non-traditional?  It is, and intentionally so.

WGU Washington has no campus and the students are not required to attend courses in person. They do their coursework online with their mentors while they stay at home with their families.  Most work, but all do their studies at their own pace, not the university’s or the instructors’. The average bachelor’s degree takes 30 months.

WGU stands for Western Governors University.  Founded in 1997 by 19 governors, it came to Washington in 2011 when then-Senator Jim Kastama (D-Puyallup) and Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney (D-Seattle) sponsored the legislation.

The university serves working adults and the 950,000 state residents who have started — but not finished — their college degrees.  The average age of the WGU Washington student is 36.  Students come from urban, suburban and rural areas.

WGU Washington uses competency-based instruction that measures learning rather than time in a classroom. In other words, you need to know the information thoroughly before you move to the next level.  It is a pass-fail system with no letter grades.  The important thing is the student masters his or her work, so potential employers know they can do the job.

It doesn’t matter if you miss a class where important information was covered because WGU Washington is self-paced with mentors tracking progress and assisting students to master the materials.

And there’s another difference.

Typically, after the graduation ceremony euphoria wears off for graduates of traditional colleges and universities, students are faced with starting a new life away from campus, finding a job and starting to repay their student loans.

The cost of a college education is staggering these days and 71 percent of grads are leaving college with loans averaging almost $30,000 – and the Federal Reserve reports that student loan debt has nearly tripled over the last decade.

That heavy debt weighs on students long after they leave college.

Pew Research reports that households headed by a young (under 40) college-educated adult with no student debt accumulated seven times the net worth of households headed by a similarly situated person carrying student debt. And Pew found that student borrowers carried almost twice as much other debt (car loans, credit cards, mortgages) than non-borrowers.

On the other hand, WGU Washington is affordable because tuition is charged at a flat rate of approximately $6,000 per 12-month term for most programs. Rather than paying per credit hour, students may complete as many courses as they are able during a term without incurring additional costs.

Compounding the problem for the graduates of traditional brick and mortar campuses is the job market remains tight. According to an Accenture survey, only 11 percent of this year’s graduates are leaving college with a job offer in hand. And almost half of graduates from 2012 and 2013 report they are underemployed and working in jobs that have nothing to do with their college degrees.

Compare that to WGU graduates.  In a 2011 Lighthouse Research survey of nearly 4,000 grads, 65 percent reported they got a raise, promotion or new job responsibilities as a result of their WGU degree and three out of four reported they were employed in their degree field.

Does this mean that WGU will replace the traditional college campus?  No, but it offers working students and those who dropped out of college another affordable option.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at

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