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Online School Helps Grown-Ups Finish College

Sherrie Shackleford studies teaching at Western Governors University from her Indiana condo, where she lives with her daughters, Aubrey (left) and Alissa (right).
Larry Abramson
Sherrie Shackleford studies teaching at Western Governors University from her Indiana condo, where she lives with her daughters, Aubrey (left) and Alissa (right).

There are an estimated 37 million Americans who have some college credit but no degree — and Western Governors University is trying to change that. The nonprofit online school is challenging many traditional concepts about higher education with a new approach aimed to help adult students finish college.

And after 15 years in existence, the school is catching on.

Reaching Out To Adult Learners

Sherrie Shackleford lives outside of Bloomington, Ind., in a small condo with her 9-year-old daughters, Aubrey and Alissa. Aubrey says she was glad when her mom decided to go back to college.

"It's kind of exciting, 'cause she gets to go to school again," she says, "and I'm proud of her."

Shackleford worked for years as a medical transcriber, but when foreign competition drove wages for that job down, she says she knew she needed to go back to school. As a single parent, she also knew she needed more flexibility than a traditional college could provide.

That's where Western Governors University stepped in. The school was founded by 19 governors concerned about providing affordable education for students like her.

At 38 years old, Shackleford is close to the typical age for the school. Also typical is that she did not want to start at square one because she already had many of the basic tools that traditional college students lack.

"I have life experience; I already have self-discipline; I'd worked from home for years," says Shackleford, who studies from her bedroom office.

Her dad told her about Western Governors, which operates nationally but has special visibility in Indiana. In upbeat radio and TV ads, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels trumpets the fact that Hoosiers can use state grants at Western Governors — something they can't do in other states.

The effort has paid off: The state has more than 2,000 Western Governors University students, and that's helped push the school's national total to more than 30,000.

Online Education With A Personal Touch

Western Governors has stripped the higher education machine down to its parts. The school doesn't develop its own curriculum, so the material Shackleford studies to become a high school biology teacher comes from outside providers. Those kinds of innovations help keep tuition low, at around $6,000.

Shackleford can also keep her costs down by finishing her coursework early. The average time to get a degree at Western Governors is much shorter than at a typical school, where students have to put in a set amount of "seat time."

But the truly unusual thing about this computer-driven system is that it provides a lot of one-on-one attention. Throughout her time at Western Governors, Shackleford will have her own personal student mentor — a combination guidance counselor, career coach and best buddy.

Shackleford has never met her mentor in the flesh, even though she lives about 90 minutes away, just north of Indianapolis. Her name is Stormi Brake, and she also works out of her home office, in a house filled with kids and pets.

When I show up for a visit, Brake is wearing a headset and talking on the phone with one of her 90 students. She is organized and energetic, jumping from student to student to head off any problems. She tracks their progress on a computer dashboard the school uses. She shows me that students who are completing required tasks on schedule show up in green, while those who are behind show up in red, a sign that the mentor needs to get in touch.

Brake has a strong background in science and teaching, but her job is to make sure her students get their degree. Students with questions about course content can turn to another kind of mentor — a course mentor — who's considered an expert on the subject.

A Competency-Based Approach To Learning

All that support helps students understand when they're ready to show that they have mastered a subject.

"For each degree, we define what we expect a graduate to know and be able to do," says university President Bob Mendenhall. "We develop the assessments to measure that. When they've demonstrated they've mastered all the competencies, they graduate."

Western Governors is an ambitious effort to reach adult students who often struggle to finish school, but right now it's only filling a niche. The university offers degrees in just four fields: information technology, teaching, business and health care. According to Mendenhall, his school isn't meant to replace traditional colleges.

Still, based on student and employer feedback, Western Governors graduates are doing well, getting jobs and promotions based on their degrees. But the school is still new, and it will take time to develop better numbers on how students are doing.

In the meantime, the university has managed to keep one important number in check: Tuition hasn't gone up in five years.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Larry Abramson
Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.