BY JOHANN NEEM
Johann N. Neem is Professor of History at Western Washington University and author of Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General issued the findings of a long-awaited audit in which it concluded that Western Governors University (WGU) had defrauded the federal government over $700 million in student aid dollars for pretending to be something it was not. Some of us, of course, have long known that WGU, which proclaims itself a university but has no professors, has been a diploma mill for a long time. Now the federal government’s own auditors have reached the same conclusion.
At the heart of the audit’s determination were two factors. A 2008 federal law requires distance learning institutions to “support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor” to qualify for expanded federal aid. The law set a floor to avoid a race to the bottom on public dollars. After studying 61,180 students in 2013-14, the DoE concluded that at least 62% took one or more courses that did not meet the law’s expectations. In other words, students received credit without instruction.
The second major determination by the audit was that WGU wrongly labeled its self-paced courses as credit-hour courses. Credit-hour courses are required to offer a minimum level of weekly instruction that self-paced programs are not. When WGU denied the charge, the audit noted that WGU’s denial was “contrary to its advertising materials.”
Back in 2011, when WGU was first coming to my state of Washington, I decided I needed to learn more about this school with no professors that policy makers seemed to love. So I gave them a call. I asked them about their professors.
WGU: “We don’t have a link for professors.”
I then asked how I would know who will be my teachers.
WGU: “We don’t have teachers. We have mentors. Mentors don’t teach your classes. You’re learning on your own.”
This sounds awfully like a self-paced course, and it sounds like I’m on my own academically. But that could not be. What if I struggle, I asked.
WGU: “If you don’t understand, you call your mentor, and your mentor will provide you resources—a link, a module, a webinar, something like that.”
Surely, things have now changed. Certainly, in the wake of the bad press surrounding the audit’s release, WGU’s corporate leaders would have provided their phone operators/recruiters better talking points. So I called again on September 30, soon after the audit’s release. Here’s a rough transcript of my conversation:
Me: I can’t find any information on teachers or professors.
WGU: Every “course is a preset independent study module system with course instructors—not a typical class when teachers teach you—it’s an independent study tool.”
The operator continued that WGU does not publish information on their instructors because “they’re not really teaching you” and “it’s all independent.”
So the teachers don’t teach? Isn’t that why WGU has been asked to refund taxpayers over $700 million? But I pushed on. I was confused. So I won’t have teachers?
WGU: “basically it’s an independent study, individually driven.”
What? So the operator/recruiter admits that WGU offers self-paced courses without adequate instruction, as the Department of Education’s Inspector General concluded. Every respectable school, I noted, listed faculty members on their websites so I would know who would be my academic mentors and teachers. Why would WGU not do that for their “course mentors”? (Remember: WGU has no professors; it divides up the components of faculty work—mentoring students, designing curricula, teaching, assessing student work, and academic program governance—into distinct jobs.)
WGU: “They’re supporting your educational experience, they’re not really teaching you.” They offer you “tips and tricks” to “help you understand.”
Tips and tricks?
That’s what it boils down to. WGU’s own phone operator/recruiter admitted to me that the school offers no education. Course instructors do not offer instruction, much less the kinds of deep, active learning that defines good teaching on a college campus. But once I use my tips and tricks to do well and pass my classes, I wondered who grades my work.
I would be graded by “course evaluators.” When I pushed for their qualifications, the operator/recruiter responded: “I don’t know the exact level of education for the evaluators.” But don’t worry. They don’t need to evaluate complicated work because, she earlier told me, “you’re graded directly off the rubric.”
Tips and tricks. Perhaps nothing better sums up what WGU offers. It provides non-traditional students who deserve more with less. But it ensures that they get a degree. That’s what policy makers love about it. But this is no different than what the Great and Powerful Oz offered to the Scarecrow. Learned folks, Oz informed Scarecrow in the film Wizard of Oz, “have one thing you haven’t got. A diploma.” Like the Great and Powerful Oz, WGU hands out diplomas to hide the fact that what appears magnificent is less so when one peers behind the curtain.