Home > Informational, LinkedIn, School > Why I’m a WGU Student, and Why I Believe in Competency-Based Education

Why I’m a WGU Student, and Why I Believe in Competency-Based Education

I’m a failure as a traditional college student.

It’s true. I was so burned out at the end of high school, bored out of my head with spending time in a classroom, that even though I was Junior National Honor Society, and was ranked 7th out of a class of 542 in my sophomore year, I spiraled and basically crashed my senior year of high school. I simply could not tolerate another year in the classroom.

So I didn’t go to college and went to work instead.

No less than 4 times I’ve tried to go back to school the traditional way. I can show you the transcripts. Each time, they ended the same way, with me burning out on the overload and the ridiculously boring amount of time I had to spend sitting at a desk. I learn extremely quickly, and I can absorb and articulate back things I learn very quickly. So equally as quickly I would eventually lose interest.

This is by no means a reflection on the students who need to learn that way. I get that other people will learn differently but arrive at the same equally qualified result. But it didn’t work for me at all.

Many times over the last 10 years, as my career has progressed, I’ve often said that if I could find some way to get credit for life experience, or at a minimum “test out” of topics that I already knew, that I would consider going back to school, but without that, I saw no way I would ever go back to school and finish my degree.

Early in 2012, inspired by a colleague of mine who was taking online courses to further her degree in computer science, I started looking around for a way to pursue my degree under the following conditions:

  1. I could do all course work online
  2. I could proceed as quickly or as slowly as I needed
  3. I could “test out” of courses as quickly as possible
  4. I did not have to spend hours and hours in either a virtual or a brick-and-mortar classroom

Today, I’m a student at Western Governor’s University. I’ve just finished my first 6 month term, and in that 6 months I’ve completed 9 classes and find myself about 18 months short of getting my Bachelors in Software Development.

How is that possible, you ask?

Well, first of all, WGU cares that you know what you say know, not how long it takes you to prove you know it. Out are classroom sessions and lectures and repetitive assignments. In are self-driven curricula and online course materials followed by competency exams or papers / projects demonstrating your understanding of the material. Out are teachers, in are equally qualified course mentors whose job it is to make sure you stay on task and give assistance where needed. The “teachers” instead spend time vetting and perfecting the online curriculum to make sure it meets accreditation standards as well as industry standards.

This link is instructive, talking about how their philosophy is based on something similar to airline pilot training, based on competency, and how it was founded with the backing of 19 state governors who agreed with its philosophy of education.

Online University Turns 15

Note that the university is 15 years old now, and fully accredited. In my IT program, I’ve managed to test out of several courses. And it’s not just traditional “testing out”, either. Since my program is IT, the WGU courses are based on industry certification exams. That means that in order to pass Database Fundamentals, I needed to pass the base level Microsoft Certification for database design.

This resulted in two perhaps counter-intuitive outcomes. First, because it’s a Certification test program, I would argue that you learn more in that class, and because you do earn the Certification, the class carries real weight on your resume. Secondly, because my current job requires me to be an expert on the subject matter anyway, I was able to read the material once and pass the exam. In some classes I’ve been able to take a pre-assessment exam, identify my weaknesses relative to the material, review what I don’t know as well, and take and pass the certification exam in as little as two weeks, studying a couple of hours a night after work and life has calmed down.

Under what circumstances would spending 40 classroom hours to arrive at the same result make sense to a student like me?

Not all of the courses are like that, naturally. My humanities course required me to write a paper comparing periods of art, which were graded by three “graders” against a published rubric covering about 20 different specific points of knowledge. So other courses have their own way of determining competency. But even that class only had two assignments, and I was able to choose when during my term to do the class and turn in the work.

In addition, the cost is so much less than your typical school. Because of WGU’s competency-based online curriculum, they don’t have brick-and-mortar schools or teachers in the traditional sense. This means they can charge a lot less. In fact, my 6 month first term cost me a total of $3,000.

But here’s the kicker. While I must take 12 units, I am allowed to take as many as I can successfully finish, at no additional cost. So I spent $3,000 for 6 months, and finished 27 units. Let’s do the math, shall we? That’s $111 per unit, or $333 per class. My pace is completely at my discretion and control, and the quicker I can finish, the cheaper my education will be.

But that doesn’t even begin to factor the opportunity cost savings of not having to spend over 500 hours in a classroom over that 6 months. I was able to do the work at my pace, at my discretion, and accelerate or decelerate my pace at will. I saved a massive amount of time relative to traditional education for sure.

WGU also has a very lenient transfer policy, and transferred in 11 of my previous classes, even though some of them I had taken as long as 20 years ago.

Many argue that this philosophy violates the “college experience”. You know, where you learn to interact with your peers, achieve greater socialization, and all that. That’s great for a lot of people, and I’m sure people who want to go through that do well. Members of my family have gone through the traditional college experience and are fantastic at what they do.

But for me, at my age (and even when I was in my 20s), as a driven, self-motivated individual, what I really want at the end of the day is proof that I can do the job I’m trained to do. The social aspect of that learning is much less important.

The end result is that I have found the school I was looking for and for the first time I can see an affordable, reachable goal of a Bachelor’s degree…and in addition I’ll have 18 industry certifications on my resume to prove my competency. And trust me, competency is what really matters to my employer.

For more information, visit:
Western Governors graduates those who prove ‘competency’
Western Governor’s University

Categories: Informational, LinkedIn, School
  1. August 10, 2012 at 11:47 am

    I’m also a WGU student and transferred here after spending $40K on an associate’s degree with another online university. When they upped their tuition for the 2nd time, I decided to get my BS somewhere that was more reasonable. But cost wasn’t my only reason for choosing WGU. Like you the competency based curriculum strongly appealed to me and has worked well. I’m in my second term at WGU and hope to graduate at the end of it. I have accumulated 30 CU’s and need 20 more plus my Capstone project. I have a wonderful mentor who encourages me and helps me find solutions to problems I might be having although I will say those have been very few. I highly recommend WGU but warn that you MUST be pretty self-motivated in order to succeed.

  2. October 14, 2013 at 9:06 am

    I already have two Master’s degrees and a Certificate of Advanced Study (24 graduate hours beyond master’s), so I don’t need another master’s; I wish WGU gave a Specialist or Doctorate.

  3. October 14, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Great post, thanks for sharing. I have a lot in common with you.

  4. October 15, 2013 at 7:39 am

    Great post! I’m attending WGU for a degree in education! I love the way the classes are set up to test competency rather than wasting time on useless things.

  5. August 14, 2015 at 11:36 am

    Great post Robert! Thanks for your really thoughtful sharing. We are so hopeful that more students will also feel the same impact of CBE as it has had on you! Your story is amazing!

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