A ‘Skills-Denominated’ Learning and Work Model

Western Governors University has continued its remarkable growth amid the pandemic. With an enrollment of more than 130,000 students, WGU is one of the nation’s largest universities. And just under 50,000 students graduated from the online, competency-based university during the last academic year

Earlier this summer, Scott Pulsipher, WGU’s president, testified to the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives about how to expand access to higher education. He proposed different ways of measuring student outcomes while also endorsing the extension of federal aid eligibility to high-quality microcredentials.

I recently spoke with Pulsipher to expand on his testimony, asking policy questions about competency-based education, short-term credentials, the proposal to double Pell Grant awards, and more. A lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation follows, below. And the full audio is available here:

Q: Competency-based education programs remain small, with the exception of WGU and a few others. But that could change now that some employers are focusing more on skills. Is CBE going to have a moment in the next couple of years?

Pulsipher: It’s still hard to tell. Despite our scale, I think there are many who still believe that it’s a domain that may come with as many risks as it does benefits. But we certainly at WGU believe wholeheartedly that if you keep those standards for learning and the measures of learning constant and let time vary, it provides much more flexibility for how individuals traverse education.

The other big benefit where I do think we’re going to have a moment that will nudge CBE further into the accepted realm, and policy will adapt to that, is that competency-based education and the approach of the curriculum design allows the learning outcomes to be more directly aligned with the skills that are needed in the workforce. And as we do that, I think we will see the advancement of competency-based educational models into not just degree programs but also into more short-form credentials, those that may be a 6- to 12-month program that is needed for individuals to reskill and upskill into their next opportunity. We know how well competency-based education can adapt to the changing needs of the workforce. And that is definitely accelerating now, certainly infused by the pandemic.

Q: How could the U.S. Congress help incentivize CBE?

Pulsipher: Obviously one of the first and most valuable things would simply be fully authorizing competency-based education into the Higher Ed Act. It is one of those things that often can get conflated with distance education. It is not the same. Distance education is very much about leveraging technology and online learning. But competency-based education disrupts some of the conventions that we have around time-based learning, a 16-week term, for example. How do you measure full-time enrollment of a student? And I think we are at a threshold where the policymakers need to really contemplate fully authorizing competency-based education as an eligible program and an eligible model so that a student can leverage federal student aid to matriculate into such a program.

The other thing that I think we will see is how does policy start to adapt to the working learners? They’re a big part of today’s enrollment. Individuals who are over the age of 24 comprise over 40 percent of the enrollment of 20 million students. Well, guess what? Those working learners need much more flexibility in their learning models. The fixed three days a week, one hour in a classroom, in a lecture, etc.—that can often create barriers to access for those working learners. And so there are policy models that can also be more accommodating to the need those learners have for flexibility.

Q: WGU has a pretty tight focus, certainly given the scale. You’ve got business, IT, education, and health professions as your primary colleges. And I think of it as a bachelor’s and graduate degree institution. Where are you heading in terms of shorter-term credentials?

Pulsipher: We do believe in continuing to advance the full portfolio of program offerings. This goes back to our core mission to create pathways to opportunity. And one of the overarching principles there is that education should be about both the first and the next opportunity. And so we’re recognizing that even today, many individuals who will pursue that first rung on the ladder of their profession do not require a bachelor’s degree. And that may come in the form of a very specific industry credential. So we have introduced medical coding and medical assistant credentials in the health professions field. In doing so, we’ve ensured that those are fully transferable and stackable into the next credential, so that you can in fact leverage that credit directly into a bachelor’s program. Within the fields of IT we also are introducing those short-form credentials. And we were one of the first partners with edX to introduce a micro-bachelor’s in IT.

Where previously we embedded many of the industry certifications directly into our degree programs, we see those unbundling somewhat in how they’re consumed. And so we do believe that both pre-degree and post-degree, our portfolio of credentials will continue to expand and pretty rapidly. This is obviously one that is not fully supported or contemplated in policy yet, because it’s so focused on the degree being a blunt force instrument by which we are trying to advance the workforce in the future.

The reason why we’re doing this is that most surveys suggest that two thirds of the jobs in the future are going to require a postsecondary credential. But the data show that 35 percent of those are going to be degrees and the other 30 percent are going to be nondegree credentials. So there is a high demand for those postsecondary credentials that we see as being very relevant to the workforce and to the opportunities that individuals can pursue. That may be their first job. Or if they already have a degree, it may be their next job they need to reskill into. 

Q: You support opening up Pell to shorter-term credentials. But you also encouraged quality controls in your testimony. How can Congress strike that balance?

Pulsipher: Ultimately it comes back to the promise of education being the surest path to opportunity. If we want to have the federal government or even state governments be involved in increasing the affordability and the access to these educational pathways to opportunity, they actually have to result in opportunity. So we have to have greater accountability that individuals who matriculate into a program complete that program and are actually achieving the opportunity. Do we have high completion rates? Do we have high attainment rates and economic mobility as a result of individuals being instructed and educated through those programs? Increasing transparency and accountability for those outcomes increases the willingness of the federal government and taxpayers, or for that matter state governments, to be investing in those programs and making them accessible to the residents of their respective states.

We’re trying to capture two things in my statement [to Congress]. One is that the pathway actually has to lead to opportunity. So you have to ensure that the learning outcomes are relevant to the opportunities being pursued or relevant to the workforce needs of the future. Second, they actually have to drive value. The cost of acquiring the credential cannot exceed the economic benefit of the opportunity itself. And we know from the Postsecondary Value Commission that 649 institutions out there today basically provide no economic benefit, meaning that the economic return does not even cover the cost of having attained the credential or attended in the first place. 

Q: You endorse doubling the maximum Pell award. Yet WGU has kept its annual tuition and fees at roughly $8K. So I was thinking about Senator Burr and his opposition to free college, where he said that because community college tuition already is almost free for most students, why do we need to do this? That question also applies to WGU, where you can get pretty far on a Pell Grant. 

Pulsipher: You certainly can at WGU. We have a six-month term. In that six-month term, you’ll pay about $3,750, roughly. That includes all your learning resources, too. But you’re also able to complete as many courses as you can in that six-month period, such that our students do graduate in a shorter time to a bachelor’s degree than typical—about 2.5 years, five terms. Having said that, what we recognize is that there are many options that individuals have available to them. And those options that they’re going to pick ultimately are going to align with their own passions, their own interests, and the opportunities that they want to pursue. And so not all individuals are going to come and matriculate to WGU.

And even if a student does actually begin in a community college and complete those first two years there, those subsequent two years, even at a public regional or a public flagship, the cost of that attendance goes way up, especially if you’re a full-time student who is expected to not be working during that time period. Even if you try to have a low-cost approach like WGU, there are costs out there. The Pell level, where it is today, has not kept pace with inflation and is still covering only a fraction, usually less than a third of the total cost of a year of attending school. Doubling Pell will start to increase the access and reduce barriers to access for so many that need it. It’s certainly the case at WGU that doubling Pell will now more than cover a year’s worth of attending. It is one of the more interesting and compelling ways to provide need-based federal funding of postsecondary education in a way that is probably better than a broad-based free college initiative.

Q: In your testimony you mentioned the need for a digital open skills system. WGU is part of the Open Skills Network, which is working on skills-based education and hiring. What’s the role for the federal government here?

Pulsipher: This is one of our most compelling opportunities for transforming the whole learning and work model. And the reason the federal government is such a critical participant in this is that one, it is a very large employer. Two, it is establishing policy by which they advance aid to learning pathways and programs that can actually lead to great economic mobility for an individual, the family, and ultimately for communities and society. So their influence and the ability to advance the future skills-based—or what I like to call the skills-denominated learning and work model—is significant.

The other benefit to this is that the federal government can advance the availability of aid and funding and policy that supports these skills-based learning pathways that go beyond just degree pathways or credential pathways. Apprenticeships come into that, work-based learning comes into that, paid internships can come into that, military comes into that. Many of those pathways are now more integrated into the overall economy. It’s now a way by which you can bring both the learning and the work into one record.

Skills also make the degree more relevant itself. If we actually had a transcript that shows these are all my assessed skills and those map directly to a skills denominator role description, you get through a lot of that candidate sourcing much more quickly than you do today. And it’s arguably much more equitable because now you’re allowing many more candidates from different and diverse pathways to be accessible to those jobs than they were before, where someone used to just say “degree required” on a job description.

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