May/June 2001 // Virtual University
Renaissance at Western Governors University: An Interview with Robert W. Mendenhall
by James L. Morrison and Robert W. Mendenhall
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James L. Morrison and Robert W. Mendenhall "Renaissance at Western Governors University: An Interview with Robert W. Mendenhall" The Technology Source, May/June 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

In the September 1997 issue of The Technology Source, we focused our Spotlight Site on the Western Governors University (WGU) Web site. We stated:

    The virtual university operated by the Western Governors' Association represents a watershed for higher education, combining the accreditation and prestige of the traditional university with the speed and connectivity of modern technology. In addition, WGU has taken a step that could affect the future of higher education—it is decoupling sit time from a diploma. WGU staff members will assist students in putting together an academic program combining online courses with residential classes at one or more traditional institutions, but for students to receive a degree from WGU, they must demonstrate that they have acquired a set of specific competencies as determined through a battery of assessments. WGU will not award degrees based upon credit hours (Morrison, 1997, ¶ 2).

Students did not flock to register when WGU opened its virtual doors, and some critics have written off the experiment as a failure. Evidence is developing, however, that WGU is beginning to fulfill its promise. No one can better describe this renaissance than Robert W. Mendenhall, president of WGU.

James Morrison [JM]: Bob, what happened after WGU opened its doors?

Robert W. Mendenhall [RWM]: It is important to note that while WGU was incorporated and began development efforts in 1997, it did not offer degree programs until the summer of 1999. Since then, we have made steady progress. We now have seven competency-based degree programs at the associate's, bachelor's, and master's degree levels. Our degrees are focused in three primary areas: business, information technology, and education. We have 500 enrolled students. As we expected with a distance-delivered, competency-based model, our students are working adults with full-time jobs and/or families who have significant prior work, college, or life experiences. In fact, the average student is 40 years old, and 85% of students work full-time. Although it took WGU some time initially to educate our potential students on what competency-based education means for them, it has become clear that our model meets the needs of many students who want to advance their educational goals but are unable to do so in a traditional system.

JM: What are the indicators that WGU is doing well?

RWM: Consider the following:

  • We are one of the few online universities to achieve candidacy for accreditation, the only competency-based university to achieve that status, and the only university ever to have been jointly reviewed and accredited by four of the regional accrediting associations.
  • We were chosen as one of 15 institutions to participate in the Demonstration Project of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), which offers financial aid to distance learning students.
  • We increased student enrollments 150% during the past year. WGU now has 500 students, up from 200 one year ago.
  • Our online catalog lists nearly 1,000 distance education courses from more than 40 providers in the United States and Canada.
  • WGU's first graduate earned her Master of Arts degree on December 1, 2000, only 16 months after she enrolled. This is what a competency-based degree allows for those who already have significant competencies.
  • WGU has 22 major corporate and foundation partners who support the mission and vision of the University.
  • We increased our net assets by 33% in our last fiscal year, performing better than expected in both revenues and expenses.

In addition, we have eight articulation agreements in place with institutions from around the United States, including Antioch University (OH), Bellevue University (NE), ISIM University (CO), Jones International University (CO), Marylhurst University (OR), Regis University (CO), SUNY Empire State College (NY), and Thomas Edison State College (NJ). These agreements allow students who graduate with a WGU competency-based degree to transfer into credit-based programs offered by the above institutions. We anticipate more of these agreements in the coming year, including agreements with community colleges that will allow their graduates with associate degrees to transfer into WGU bachelor's degree programs.

JM: How do you respond to critics who maintain that WGU is a relatively high-cost institution that educates a small, affluent student body, diverting resources away from public higher education in the Western states?

RWM: They do not have a clear understanding of WGU and our mission. First, our member states contributed $100,000 each (in 1996-97) to start WGU, but they do not provide ongoing funding. Second, tuition for a full degree program averages around $7,000, which is less than half the cost of other private online degree programs. In fact, the entire cost of starting the university and growing it to this point is less than half the cost of a new campus building. WGU is an important additional educational resource in the Western states and the rest of the country because we provide an excellent, physically and financially accessible education to an underserved population. Third, the United States needs a competency-based alternative in higher education, which we provide primarily with private funding.

JM: How does the WGU competency-based degree program work? How is it different from other virtual university programs?

RWM: Competency-based degrees are based on students demonstrating what they know and can do rather than on their completion of required courses or credit hours. All learning counts toward a degree, whether it was gained through work, academic, or life experiences. When we create a competency-based degree, we use a program council of national experts from academia and industry to define the competencies that are expected of a graduate in that field. We then work with the WGU assessment council to define how to measure these competencies, and we generally contract out for the development of these assessments. Students must complete these assessments to earn a WGU degree. Finally, we identify university and commercial courses and other Internet learning resources and map them to the competencies. Students use these courses and learning resources, which come from third parties, to gain the competencies they lack. Instruction is provided by the course providers, but WGU's faculty act as mentors to guide students through their degree programs.

WGU is different from other virtual universities in a number of ways:

  • We offer competency-based degrees rather than credit-based degrees.
  • We use distance-delivered courses and learning resources that already exist rather than developing new courses.
  • Our faculty members mentor students for their entire degree programs rather than instructing a particular course.
  • We are a degree-granting university with candidacy for accreditation.

Many of the virtual university efforts in the country focus on brokering distance-delivered content, but they do not offer their own degrees or have their own faculty and therefore do not seek independent accreditation. WGU offers every component to earn a college degree: an online library and bookstore, a catalogue of distance-delivered courses, student collaboration tools such as online chat and threaded discussion groups, and one-on-one advising from a personal mentor. The most important difference from other universities is that through our competency-based degrees, we are able to measure and certify learning no matter where or how it is done rather than counting only that learning done through us.

JM: How does a student enroll in and move through a WGU competency-based degree program?

RWM: Students interested in a WGU competency-based degree program can visit our online campus. After logging on to the Web site, a student can research various degrees. Application and payment are completed online, after which the student is assigned a mentor (generally a Ph.D. in the field). The student completes a pre-assessment, and the mentor helps the student determine the competencies that she has and those that she needs to learn. Each student receives an individualized academic action plan, which outlines what the student already knows, recommends courses to acquire necessary skills and knowledge, and sets a timeline for completion.

To enroll in courses, students go to the WGU catalog. Each degree is made up of five to six domains, which may be mastered individually. The student and his or her mentor determine when the student is ready to take selected domain assessments, which consist of exams, performance tasks, and portfolio requirements. The assessment process is the crux of the student experience. This is the student's chance to demonstrate competency in a specific domain and WGU's chance to ensure that the student is on the right path toward the completion of a degree.

JM: What happens if a student leaves WGU without completing the program? Do any of the courses transfer to another institution?

RWM: As you know, courses taken at one accredited institution may or may not be accepted at another. Since most of the courses our students take are from other accredited institutions, those courses transfer as they would under any traditional circumstance, with or without WGU involvement. In addition, we work with students who have completed WGU competency domains to get credit from other institutions. We have not had many students transfer, but all institutions with whom we have articulation agreements have agreed to evaluate WGU students' individual competency domains for transfer credit.

JM: How do you assure the public that someone with a WGU degree has the competency the degree implies?

RWM: Our assessments are designed, reviewed, and monitored by the WGU Assessment Council, composed of national experts in assessment. Assessments are created by some of the leading professional test development companies in the country and are extensively beta-tested. Students take the assessments in proctored testing centers and are required to pass all assessments at the level specified by the assessment council.

JM: Do you see indications that other universities will adopt a competency-based degree structure?

RWM: It is not clear that traditional universities will adopt a competency-based degree structure any time soon; however, the competency-based model serves a different market than traditional higher education. In the information age, learning takes place in many ways and many places. There will be an increasing need for educational institutions to measure and certify learning regardless of where it takes place. If traditional universities do not respond to this need, there will be new institutions created to do so. Learning will most likely be measured through competency assessment. The best example of this trend is the technology certifications developed by the IT industry, where business defines the competencies important to them and develops the content to teach those competencies plus the assessments to measure them. Those with technology certifications are hired at high starting salaries. Industry may develop similar competency certifications in other areas of need.

JM: What is the biggest difference WGU makes in higher education?

RWM: WGU's biggest contribution is that we provide an alternative to traditional credit-based degrees. Competency-based degrees are not for everyone, but they are an important alternative for some. Hopefully, we are also making a good argument for sharing online courses, so that every university does not have to fund the development of similar courses. We believe that the role of the mentor is important in online learning and will be adopted by others. Finally, we have influenced the regulations for financial aid to distance learning students through our participation in the DOE Demonstration Project.

JM: Many thanks, Bob, for catching us up on the developments at WGU. It is clear that WGU is an exemplar that will influence the future of higher education.


Morrison, J. (1997, September). Western Governors University. The Technology Source. Retrieved April 4, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

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