WGU WGU Internally Created

The need for affordable and flexible education rings truer today than ever before. According to the College Board's 2009 Trends in College Pricing report, the cost of higher education is rising: Tuition for in-state residents at public four-year institutions was about $7,020 for the 2009-2010 academic year, bringing the total cost for one academic year to more than $19,000 when books and living expenses are included. This means a four-year degree at a public university costs nearly $80,000, and according to the same report, a private four-year degree costs twice that -- $160,000.

And governors will continue cutting higher education budgets, which will drive further increases in tuition costs, said John Thomasian, director of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. The lack of affordability combined with the complexity of student financial aid threatens higher education's accessibility, said David Breneman, the Newton and Rita Meyers professor in economics of education at the University of Virginia. "To find out what the actual price of college is going to be is not trivial in this country," he said. "The kids who are coached know how to run the financial aid system if they are eligible, while the kids from less sophisticated families -- I think a number of us worry that they sort of get lost at the starting gate."

As university budgets shrink, governors are searching for ways to make the remaining education money more effective, Thomasian said. "One of those ways to make it effective is for higher education to start using a lot more online learning."

Debates about the rigor of online versus traditional degrees abound, but the truth is that the recession is straining traditional public universities, tuitions are continuously rising and students are being turned away from already-overcrowded classrooms. So does online education offer a viable alternative for delivering higher education, career retraining and lifelong learning?

Ray Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors Association, thinks so. "I really believe that higher education has to move online," he said at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers midyear meeting in Baltimore. "Private universities have done it; government will have to follow along."

A Broken Model?

Ultimately the higher education system as we know it is in jeopardy, and many contend that the model is already broken.

"Particularly for the public institutions," Breneman said, "if you think their role and purpose is to serve the public in a broad way and to be affordable and accessible, I think we are running a risk of closing out opportunities to a substantial part of the youth population if we aren't careful. We're shifting the cost from the general taxpayer, which is what it has historically been, over to the families."

Carol Twigg, president and CEO of the National Center for Academic Transformation, hesitates to say that the higher education model is broken, but she does think it's in serious danger of cracking simply because higher education, by and large, hasn't used technological innovation to become more productive.

Twigg contends that higher education institutions are competing in the economics of society, and all other industries are incorporating technologies to promote productivity and efficiency. "The more you fall behind, the greater the contrast in your cost of doing business versus other industries," she says, which is one reason there's growing public concern over the rising cost of higher education. "Soon it will be priced out of the average American's ability to pay for it," she added. "It's getting close to that point right now. But people at colleges and universities aren't doing this to be willfully malicious; it's that the model they're using is labor intensive and, hence, more costly."

Changing the Model?

Historically, Breneman said, education is an industry that's had very little technical advancement. "If you think about it, colleges are run and courses are taught today very much like they were 40 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago -- a professor in front of a group of students," he said. "And the digital revolution we're going through holds a great deal of promise."

Evidence is growing that there are ways to redesign college courses to make greater use of technology and lower costs without hindering performance. But Breneman said that's still within the context of someone enrolled in an institution.

For 11 years, the National Center for Academic Transformation has worked with colleges and universities, showing them how they can redesign courses to improve the quality of student learning while reducing the cost. "And the redesigns we have done -- we work with hundreds of colleges -- reduce the cost of instruction by close to 40 percent," Twigg said.

How does the center do this? Stated simply, by reorganizing how courses are taught. Higher education is structured as a handicraft industry, where professors conduct the same repetitive tasks "one by one by one by one," Twigg said. The center's goal is to bring teaching methods into the 21st century.

"So take English composition taught at a big university -- you might have 100 sections, and everybody's doing the same thing. They're not working collaboratively; they're not taking advantage of technology," she said. "Our redesigns approach a course as a whole enterprise that various people are working on, but they're working collaboratively to eliminate duplication of tasks, offloading to technology things the technology can do better, like grading math problems."

Public Higher Education in Action

Because online courses typically are taught using the same basic model as traditional classes, online learning doesn't necessarily deliver savings. The main source of cost is, of course, the instructors, Twigg said. "The people doing the teaching are the same people whether it's traditional or online," she said. "So it depends on how you organize yourself and what choices you make."

Many public universities do offer online courses while primarily maintaining traditional ones. But the public higher-education model for the future may already exist: the completely online Western Governors University (WGU), launched in 1998. Back then, it was described as highly controversial. Now WGU is the largest virtual university in the United States, using technology to offer a flexible structure and reasonable pricing to meet adult learners' needs.

WGU, founded in 1997 by a bipartisan group of 19 western governors, keeps its costs down by relying heavily on technology and independent learning resources, and by using a student-centric model versus a professor-centric approach. Technically faculty members do not teach the courses. Instead, subject-matter experts who have a master's or doctorate degree aid students along the way as much or as little as they need it. This university has, in essence, done what Twigg is teaching already-established universities to do.

"Her concepts for transforming higher ed are very much in alignment with WGU's practices," said Patrick Partridge, the university's vice president of marketing and enrollment, "which is to use technology and learning resources that put the student at the center of the learning experience -- but do it in such a way that you can apply a more businesslike approach, one that leverages the power of technology and existing learning resources to make sure that students are very well educated, but keeps costs down."

Using a computer and written course materials, students study on their own and must pass a series of tests, and then submit a portfolio of projects for their degree. And tests aren't given at set dates or times. "Probably more than you get in the classroom, it's testing you in very discrete steps along the way, and then giving you immediate feedback on whether you've learned at that point," Thomasian said. "Once you've passed these competency steps, you can move onto the next packet within the course. So you're constantly being tested along the way at your own pace, and you have a chance to self-correct."

Additionally WGU was the first system, and is still the only, that gives students credit for what they know rather than the courses they complete.

"As you take a course at WGU, you pass it by passing certain tests along the way," Thomasian said. "Your tests aren't on a set schedule in terms of, 'You have to take it this month or that month.' You can start moving those tests ahead, passing that competency and moving to the end of the course, and passing the competency for that."

When WGU began, projections indicated the university could have 100,000 students online by 2006. It didn't make that number, but enrollments continuously are increasing. "It was fun to cross the 10,000 student threshold about two years ago," Partridge said, "and we're right at the door of 20,000 right now."

New students enroll every month, and back then, Partridge estimated WGU was growing at about 400 students per month. Now he said the university enrolls approximately 1,000 new students each month. "Our net growth has been in the 25 to 40 percent range every year since 2003," he said, accounting for those who graduate.

In February, WGU held its 18th commencement and graduated 988 students -- the largest class to date. "I think this is becoming much more common," Thomasian said. "This used to be very unique, certainly at the scale they were trying to do. This kind of learning has been proven very effective, and it certainly is a model that's being used more and more in states and the public education system."

On the whole, computerization improved productivity immensely, Breneman said, noting that education is in a learning stage of its own. "People are experimenting and trying different techniques, but I suspect it's a promising direction - I'm sure it will continue to have a significant impact on traditional institutions," he said. "The exact shape of how that is going to turn out, I'm not sure I foresee very clearly, and I'm not sure anybody else does either. But it's certainly a major opportunity, and I hope we capitalize on it."

Jessica Mulholland, Web Editor Jessica Mulholland  |  Web Editor/Photographer

Jessica Mulholland has been a writer and editor for more than 10 years. She was previously the editor of Emergency Management magazine, and she loves that she can incorporate her love of photography into her work as a part of the Government Technology editorial team. Jessica can be reached at jmulholland@govtech.com and @jbronwen on Twitter.