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Aurora Institute

The WGU Audit: The Fine Print

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Alana Dunagan

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on October 13, 2017.

The Department of Education’s audit of Western Governors University (WGU) has grabbed lots of headlines. The audit’s methodology calls into question the nature of what it means to be an educator, its conclusions forestall the potential of technology to improve higher education outcomes, and it ludicrously recommends that WGU receive the biggest fine in the history of the Department.

Secretary DeVos will likely reject the Office of the Inspector General’s (OIG) recommendations. But the Secretary also should push back against the troubling assumptions written into the fine print of the 93-page audit.

Accreditors determine who faculty are—but the OIG defines ‘instructors’?

The audit sets an alarming precedent regarding who determines the appropriateness of instructional models for online programs.

Accreditation is by no means a perfect system, but accreditors have traditionally—and legally—had responsibility for determining whether an institution’s instructional model is appropriate to its mission, academic offerings, and student body. The accrediting body, in WGU’s case the Northwest Commission, is responsible for evaluating the faculty’s qualifications, as well as curriculum design and quality. The audit itself notes: “Northwest Commission accredited Western Governors University’s educational programs as distance education programs. It did not recognize any of the programs as being offered by correspondence.”

The Northwest Commission likely found WGU to be a distance education program—offering regular and substantive interaction with instructors—in part because WGU students are required to have near-weekly interaction with their student mentors, who the Commission considers to be part of the WGU faculty. In its audit, the OIG doesn’t dispute this categorization—but it concluded that while student mentors might be faculty, they didn’t count as instructors. Because the definition of distance education in the Higher Education Act requires “regular and substantive interaction with an instructor,” the OIG went on to classify many of WGU’s courses as “correspondence courses.”

The legal distinction between faculty and instructors is blurry at best. When Congress wrote its definition of distance education into the Higher Education Act in 1992, it used the word “instructor” instead of the word “faculty”. Neither word is defined in the law—elsewhere in HEA, “instructor” is mostly used to refer to teachers of foreign languages. In other cases, it seems to be used interchangeably with “faculty”, as when it addresses the “academic freedom of instructors involved in the selection of college textbooks.”

The activities of the OIG undoubtedly reveal a need to clarify the definition of terms like distance education, faculty, and instructor. However, HEA—as written—in no way justifies the leap that the OIG has made in undermining the Northwest Commission’s decision-making on WGU’s instructional model. We certainly haven’t seen the Department of Education previously using its special regulatory powers with regards to instructors to evaluate traditional foreign language departments.

Regulators are focusing on inputs, not outcomes—and they know it.

One of the most nefarious footnotes in the audit reads: “Because schools may receive Title IV funds only if they meet certain institutional eligibility requirements, determining whether Western Governors University achieved other goals not mandated by the HEA was outside the scope of our audit.”

Translation: We don’t regulate the ends, we regulate the means.

This is an attitude that America can no longer afford. The traditional ‘means’ aren’t working. College is more expensive than ever before. A turbulent economy is forcing workers to reskill throughout their careers. We need new, innovative models to address the problems facing a 21st century society by arming students with strong academic outcomes and skills for the labor market.

WGU is an example of a new model that could address the needs of today’s students and the modern workforce. It is designed to serve working adults, a population that the traditional model leaves behind. It employs a competency-based model and designs curriculum to make sure that students are learning the skills they need to succeed in the workforce. It hasn’t raised tuition since 2008, and its student loan default rate is less than half of the national average.

WGU has a demonstrated track record of success and broad, bipartisan political support. But most institutions pursuing an innovative model weren’t started by 19 state governors, haven’t yet scaled into serving tens of thousands of students, and definitely can’t afford the risk of spending years mired in a bureaucracy that considers student outcomes ‘outside the scope’. For others aiming to adopt new postsecondary models, the audit’s logic imposes a chilling effect on innovation.

This is about more than WGU

We are confident that the OIG’s recommendations will be rejected, and business will continue as usual at WGU. But the rest of higher education may not be so lucky. The actions of the OIG demonstrate alarming opposition to innovation and willingness to steamroll accreditors when it comes to nontraditional instructional models. The years and dollars that WGU spent dealing with this audit will serve as a warning—not to those who would seek to abuse the Title IV system, but to those who might innovate to more effectively and affordably serve the needs of students and the workforce. For the sake of all that we need higher education to do, we hope that Secretary DeVos rejects not just the recommendations of the OIG audit, but also the troubling logic embedded in the fine print.

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Alana leads the Institute’s higher education research and works to find solutions for a more affordable system that better serves both students and employers. In this role, Alana analyzes disruptive forces changing the higher education landscape.