Online education: WGU celebrates 25 years innovating higher education9 min read
Before he became Utah’s 14th governor, Mike Leavitt served on what was then the Utah State Board of Regents, overseers of the state’s public colleges and universities.
He was well versed on how brick-and-mortar college campuses operated and that the higher education establishment awarded degrees based on seat time in classes and demonstrated mastery of content.
So it was hardly a surprise when Leavitt, early in his decadelong term as governor, got a chilly reception when he told the Regents, “We just can’t continue to build all these buildings. By the way, they’re not all that well used.”
The Regents all but patted him on the head.
“It was clear that wasn’t going to happen. It’s not just the system. Higher education is constrained to some degree by its ability to add modules of campus and infrastructure,” he said.
A while later, he discovered an audience that shared his concerns about the sustainability of higher education, fellow members of the Western Governors Association.
At the time, the internet was taking off and the tech world and users had just scratched the surface of its many utilities.
“It became clear to me and to others that the concept of distance education was going to be quite dramatically changed, and that we were going to achieve a point where information and knowledge could be procured by having it come to you as opposed to you always going to the campus to procure it,” Leavitt said.
Instead of seat time, students could advance in their learning as they showed competency.
Leavitt credits then-Colorado Gov. Roy Romer for furthering the group’s understanding of competency-based education. Romer was an attorney but also an experienced pilot who had been a flight instructor.
“He said, ‘You know, we’d never let a person fly an airplane who hasn’t demonstrated the competency to do it. Enough time studying isn’t good enough,’” Leavitt recalled.
The Western Governors Association began to rally around the concept of a university that was wholly online and organized around the convenience of the student, understanding that their “startup” likely wouldn’t bode well in traditional higher education circles.
The late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s book “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” was instructive.
According to Christensen, “good ideas often get crushed inside mature institutions because they don’t want to be disrupted. The theory was that if you’re going to disrupt or be disruptive to long-standing traditions, you needed to do it outside that tradition,” Leavitt explained.
So the members of the Western Governors Association made “a deliberate decision” to create what would later be named Western Governors University outside the higher education community and establish it as a nonprofit “so we could operate as a more nimble creature,” Leavitt said.
But that was easier said than done.
“We needed capital so I went to state legislatures across the entire western United States to lay this out,” he said. Sixteen states agreed to appropriate $100,000 each.
Leavitt met with technology leaders in Silicon Valley, some of whom immediately embraced the concept and offered financial support.
He wrangled a meeting with Scott McNealy, then-chairman and CEO of Sun Microsystems. McNealy shared that when he was a student at Stanford University, he couldn’t move quicker than what the course structure dictated.
“We talked for about an hour. At the end of the time he stood up, went over to his desk and brought out his checkbook and wrote out a check for $500,000,” he said.
McNealy not only put his financial resources behind the nascent university, he helped connect Leavitt to other tech leaders.
Despite the growing interest and support of WGU, “I just wasn’t sure how we were going to keep it going,” Leavitt said.
He asked Charlie Johnson, then his former chief of staff, to review the organization. Johnson introduced Leavitt to Bob Mendenhall, founder, president and CEO of Wicat Systems, Inc., a publicly traded company considered a leader in providing computer-based curriculum, instructional management and testing to schools.
Mendenhall had just sold his business and he was working toward his doctorate degree.
“He saw (WGU) and instantly understood what it could become. He had the skill to nurture it through that very difficult startup phase. I kind of managed the politics and the money and Bob began to shape it into an education enterprise. He was there for 20 years,” he said.
Bit by bit, WGU has grown from its first graduate Gennie Kirch, who earned a master’s degree in learning and technology on Dec. 1, 2000, to more than 285,000 graduates in all 50 states. WGU’s principals, decked out in academic regalia, conducted a commencement ceremony solely for Kirch.
Upon her graduation, Kirch wrote a thank you note to Mendenhall that said in part, “At times when the going was rough, I knew there were others out there pulling for me. This is a credit to the WGU format. In a school environment it is fairly easy to fade into the woodwork. With the WGU you are the focal point, and it is hard to not notice the supreme care.”
Twenty-five years later, nursing student Katie Byrge said she likewise experiences mentoring and a network of support from WGU’s faculty and staff.
“There’s just so much offered for you,” she said. “Your mentors are calling each week and your professors are checking in with you, so it’s been really good and I feel very supported.”
It’s one of the reasons Byrge chose WGU, that and the convenience of doing her school work as her work and family schedules allow. A registered nurse, Byrge works at Primary Children’s Hospital’s Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinic.
Byrge had always intended to go back to college to further her education but life got in the way. She was enrolled in classes at a state school when her mother became seriously ill.
“The first time, my mom was really sick so I had to stop for a little while to take a break to take care of her. Then, she passed away,” she said.
Byrge’s plans to resume her studies were once again shelved after her husband was struck and killed by a truck while riding his bike to work. The couple had four children.
Byrge said her registered nursing training from Salt Lake Community College enabled her to support her family after her husband’s death. It also helped that she was already in the workforce and didn’t have to reboot her career while helping her children deal with the loss of their father.
A couple of years later, she remarried a man whose wife had died of cancer. They had three kids, making for a blended family of seven children.
Now that their youngest is 16 years old, Byrge said she feels like she’s in a good place to return to school. She and her cousin’s spouse, Melinda Vranes, also employed at Primary Children’s Hospital, decided to seek their bachelor’s degrees at the same time.
Byrge has completed one six-month term at WGU and just started her second. She will need three terms total to complete her degree.
“This program just fit me so much better because with the seven kids and working,” she said.
A lasting idea
One of WGU’s defining characteristics is that it offers degrees in four key areas: business, education, information technology and health professions, including nursing. There is high demand for skilled workers in each of those disciplines.
Byrge said earning her degree will qualify her for other positions in health care, although one of her goals is to spend more time on humanitarian trips where she can apply her new skills and knowledge to help others.
WGU President Scott Pulsipher said Leavitt and Romer demonstrated courage “to think differently about a higher education design.” They took it a step further persuading other governors to say, “Hey, this is a good idea and you should put some seed money into this thing.”
Perhaps more important, it wasn’t a one-off.
“If you think about some of the ideas that governors advance, they may be in existence for two or three years or maybe for as long as their administration exists but then they kind of peter out and that’s not been the case with this,” said Pulsipher.
Then-Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer, who was an early and ongoing champion of WGU, deserves credit, too, Leavitt said. Geringer has had the longest ties to the university, serving on its board of directors until recently.
Leavitt School of Health
During a gala held at La Caille restaurant on Thursday evening, WGU leaders acknowledged Leavitt’s contributions to the university and the nation, announcing that its College of Health Professions has been renamed the Michael O. Leavitt School of Health. The announcement coincides with the university’s 25th anniversary.
Leavitt served as secretary of Health and Human Services during the President George W. Bush administration where he oversaw a $750 billion budget and 67,000 employees. He led the implementation of the Medicare Part D prescription drug program.
After his government service, Leavitt founded and chaired the health care consulting firm Leavitt Partners. In August 2021, Leavitt was called by the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the eighth president of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.
After leaving government, Leavitt continued to advocate for WGU and expanding student access to high-quality education, Pulsipher said.
At the same time, Leavitt lifted up important issues such as disparities in health care outcomes related to income, living in rural communities and among people of color.
“There’s a 10-year difference in life expectancy between a woman in the top 1% of income and those in the bottom 10%. That disparity for men even gets bigger and that’s not acceptable,” Pulsipher said.
Leavitt’s ability “to advance thinking around value-based health care, integrated care, population health, behavioral health, these all became core tenants for WGU’s School of Health,” he said.
Naming the school for Leavitt acknowledges his “advocacy for how education and health care can advance the worth of an individual,” Pulsipher said.
The university also announced it is launching long-term plans to help address national workforce gaps in health care.
A new analysis by the Utah Foundation found that WGU leads the nation in nursing graduates.
According to the findings, the university has provided 84,390 nursing graduates from all 50 states since 2009 — 60,368 of whom received bachelor’s degrees in nursing and 24,022 of whom received master’s degrees in nursing.
“In 2021, WGU produced a whopping 17% of the nation’s registered nurses earning a bachelor of science in nursing, suggesting that its already outsized role in educating national nursing personnel will rapidly expand,” the report states.
Utah Foundation President Peter Reichard described WGU’s impact as “eye-popping.”
As the nation faces critical shortages in staffing hospitals, “Western Governors is deploying an innovative approach to open opportunities and lead the way forward,” Reichard said.
According to the analysis, WGU nursing graduates make up 2% of all the registered nurses with an active license in the nation. The numbers of health care professionals the university expects to graduate is expected to proliferate as new degree and credentialed programs are offered by the Leavitt School of Health.
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