Federal Audit Challenges Faculty Role at WGU

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General has released the results of a much anticipated high-stakes audit of Western Governors University, with negative findings that could threaten the large online university and, more broadly, the growing field of competency-based education.

Citing concerns about an inadequate faculty role — which the competency-based university contests — the inspector general called for the department to make WGU pay back at least $713 million in federal financial aid.

The final audit report, issued today, also said the nonprofit university, which enrolls 83,000 students, should be ineligible to receive any more federal aid payments.

Experts said the Trump administration is unlikely to follow through on the inspector general’s recommendations, which the department can reject. The department has signaled that it will be a less aggressive regulator than it was under the Obama administration.

WGU enjoys a good track record with its accreditor and broad bipartisan support in Washington, with the Obama administration having often praised the university as an innovator.

The findings of the audit, which began more than four years ago, were not a surprise to most observers.

That’s because the Office of Inspector General, which is led by Kathleen Tighe, relied on a 1992 federal law that defines aid eligibility for distance education programs, which many have said poses a problem for WGU, some other competency-based programs, and possibly online education writ large.

The audit report said most courses at WGU do not meet the distance education requirement because they were not designed for regular and substantive interaction between students and faculty members. Those courses instead should have been labeled as correspondence courses, according to the inspector general.

Under the law, a college is not eligible to receive federal financial aid if more than half of its courses are offered via correspondence or if most of its students are enrolled in correspondence courses. The inspector general’s audit report said 62 percent (37,899) of the 61,180 students who were enrolled at WGU in 2014 took at least one of 69 courses (among 102 courses in the university’s three largest academic programs) that failed to meet the distance education requirements.

“None of these 69 courses could reasonably be considered as providing regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors, the key requirement to be considered a course offered through distance education,” according to the report. “Therefore, Western Governors University became ineligible to participate in the Title IV programs as of June 30, 2014.”

As a result, the inspector general said the department should require WGU to return $713 million in federal aid it received during the two years before July of last year, as well as any federal aid it received since then.

The university rebutted the report, both in responses to the inspector general that were included in the final report and on its website.

“Western Governors University respectfully, but strongly, disagrees with the findings in the Office of Inspector General’s draft audit report. WGU is, and has always been, fully compliant with Department of Education regulations since our founding 20 years ago by 19 U.S. governors,” the university said in a May letter to the inspector general. “Our innovative learning model, which has the support of the law, the department, our accreditor and policy makers, is validated by the outcomes WGU is delivering for our 82,000 students and 81,000 graduates.”

Unbundled Faculty Model

In previously released audits, the inspector general has questioned whether some competency-based programs should be classified as being of the correspondence variety. Others have criticized the department and accreditors for their scrutiny of competency-based programs, particularly those that do not rely on the credit-hour standard. (The department must approve these so-called direct assessment programs, determining whether they have an adequate faculty role in the process.)  

WGU uses the credit-hour standard, even though the U.S. Congress passed a law exempting it from certain requirements relating to the standard.

However, the inspector general found that the university’s unbundled (or disaggregated) faculty model, which is considered one of its primary innovations, runs afoul of federal distance education requirements.

Students at WGU are assigned a faculty member, called a student mentor, when they first enroll. Faculty mentors have at least a master’s degree in their field and are well versed in students’ program requirements, the university said. Mentors work with students regularly until they graduate.

The university also employs a Ph.D.-holding subject matter expert for each course, dubbed the course mentor. These faculty members interact with students as well. In addition, subject matter experts oversee each program of study at WGU. (Students must enroll in a program at the university, not just in individual courses.) And the university employs faculty evaluators, who review competency assessments.

The inspector general, however, found that “only course mentors and evaluators, not student mentors, product managers or council members, could reasonably be considered instructors.”

The report also said interactions between students and instructors were inadequate under the federal law.

“The course design materials for all 69 of these courses described courses that would be self-paced, interaction between the students and instructors that would primarily be initiated by students, and interaction between the students and instructors that would not be regular and substantive,” according to the inspector general. “The course design materials described limited interaction with course mentors that was typically on an as-needed basis and typically initiated by the student. Therefore, we concluded that the school’s faculty composition model did not ensure that the school’s courses were designed to provide the regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors required by the Title IV definition of distance education.”

In an interview, Scott Pulsipher, WGU’s president, said the inspector general’s report was based on a “misinterpretation and misapplication” of statutory and regulatory guidance.

“We vehemently disagree with the inspector general’s opinion,” he said. “We’ve been compliant with the laws and regulations since our founding.”

Pulsipher noted that the university’s regional accreditor, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, backs the university’s faculty model. And he said the inspector general had applied a “very narrow and tight definition of faculty” at the university, compared to the approval by its accreditor and other regulators of WGU’s varied and broad faculty roles.

Congress could intervene by changing the 1992 federal law, as some backers of WGU and competency-based education have been advocating. The university will work with federal and state policy makers, Pulsipher said, to address ambiguity in the law.

“We’ll work together to make sure it gets clarified,” he said.

A department spokeswoman said the agency was reviewing the report, but added that “it is important to note that the innovative student-first model used by this school and others like it has garnered bipartisan support over the last decade.”

Observers React

Supporters of competency-based education said the federal government should update its regular-and-substantive requirement, but in a way that prevents fraudulent, low-quality programs from taking advantage of students.

Deb Bushway is an expert on competency-based programs. She’s currently provost at Northwestern Health Sciences University and previously worked for Capella University, the University of Wisconsin Extension and, briefly, as an adviser to the Education Department.

“The inspector general is clearly following the letter of the law,” Bushway said, adding that the report was not a regulatory overextension. But she also called it “more evidence that the law needs to be changed.”

Pulling the regular-and-substantive language completely, however, which some online education experts have privately pushed for, would be a mistake, said Bushway.

“That would invite bad players into the field and threaten the reputation of competency-based education,” she said.

Instead, Bushway and others call for a two-pronged solution, with a fix that would protect WGU and other competency-based programs in the short term while Congress revisits the law, perhaps as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Russell Poulin, director of policy and analysis at the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, said the department has done a “horrible” job of informing colleges about its expectations of how to comply with the regular-and-substantive requirements, which he said have changed over time.

In addition, he criticized the inspector general’s decision to base its compliance position on disagreement about the mode of teaching at WGU when there is no evidence of any harm to students.

“I totally agree with the intention of proponents of the ‘regular-and-substantive interaction’ rule, which is to avoid fraud. But it is an outdated method of reaching that goal,” he said via email, comparing it to a hypothetical decision by regulators to remove all ATM card readers because of the risk of credit card skimmers.

Poulin also said the inspector general used a narrow definition of the faculty role under the law.

“The issue is quality, and there are ways to redefine interaction and pair it with other requirements for determining a student’s academic participation in a course for financial aid purposes to achieve the goals of preventing fraud and assuring quality,” he said. “I am confident that WGU provides a quality education and is not fraudulent.”

Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said he hoped the department would reject the recommendations from the inspector general, which he said had applied an obsolete, 20th-century definition to a 21st-century institution.

“At the end of the day, we need a clear federal policy toward and definition of ‘online education,’ ” he said via email. “Until we have that, we are dealing with round pegs and square holes.”

Other experts, however, were more positive about the audit report.

“The audit’s findings should be taken very seriously, as the regular and substantive interaction requirement draws a clear distinction between self-learning and education and protects the integrity of federal student aid programs,” said Spiros Protopsaltis, a visiting associate professor at George Mason University who worked for the Obama administration as deputy assistant secretary for higher education and student financial aid after a stint on the Democratic side of the U.S. Senate’s education committee.

“The inspector general has rightly focused on ensuring that colleges comply with this key statutory provision, according to the department’s guidance,” he said via email. “Blurring the lines between correspondence and distance education and undermining the role of teaching entail enormous risk to students and taxpayers.”

A recently formed association for colleges that have created competency-based programs or are in the process of designing them, dubbed the Competency-Based Education Network, in May released a set of quality principles and standards for the field. The association on Thursday issued a statement that said the regular and substantive law should be updated.

Bushway and members of the group hope the new standards can help inform lawmakers as they consider revising distance education statutes.

Likewise, a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives would create a so-called demonstration project for competency-based programs. The proposed legislation, which has substantial support, would grant statutory and regulatory flexibility to participants, including in the application of federal financial rules, while also creating new requirements aimed at accountability and transparency. (WGU first became eligible to receive federal aid in 1999 as part of a federal demonstration program.)

Information gathered during the project also could be used by Congress as it reauthorizes the Higher Education Act.

New America, in written comments submitted to the department this week, called on the Trump administration and Congress to keep the regular-and-substantive requirement on the books for distance education programs. But the group said it would support some shifts to the law as it relates to competency-based programs.

Amy Laitinen, director of higher education policy for the group and a former Obama administration Education Department official, said the law was a response to rampant fraud and abuse.

“We need to carefully fix (not gut) the now-outdated law to ensure that students are getting the academic and other supports that they need,” she said via email. “If we don’t do it carefully, it will be a fast race to the bottom, which would be bad for students and bad for the competency-based education community.”

Meanwhile, WGU will continue to be the largest and best known competency-based education provider — by far — while the Education Department decides what to do about the audit report.

On its website, the university described its take on the process to students and others.

“The inspector general has no decision authority; she cannot directly affect an institution’s participation in the federal student aid programs. Federal Student Aid will review the OIG’s recommendations and, upon the completion of its review, will issue a letter in which it will indicate whether it agrees or disagrees with the OIG’s findings,” the university said. “There is no fixed timetable for this review. Ultimately, it is the secretary of education who determines whether to accept or reject OIG recommendations.”

The future is bleak for US higher education – Lockport Union

I thought that my jam writing days had ended, but I am so brutally (angered) by the savagery of current decline in higher education that I feel compelled to comment further.

I do not claim original research in the following findings. Rather, I am indebted to regular reports from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, National Association of Scholars, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Young Americans for Freedom, the American Heritage Foundation and various university clearinghouses. Facts are alarming, especially the abysmal understanding of our history and traditions.

Whether or not American education can recover remains to be seen, but it is doubtful that it will occur in my lifetime. I am grieved to say it because the profession was very good to me and my associates and, most notably, our students. The future is bleak not only for the profession but for our higher education institutions and therefore the country as a whole.

In authenticated reports:

— 34 percent of recent college graduates, aged 18 to 34, could not identify when election day is held.

— 50 percent could not name Franklin Roosevelt as the last president to win more than two presidential elections.

— 52 percent of college graduates could not identify George Washington as the American general at the Battle of Yorktown.

— Only 28 percent named James Madison as Father of the Constitution in a multiple choice survey.

— Ten percent thought TV’s Judge Judy was a member of the U.S. Supreme Court.

— Less than 20 percent could correctly identify on a multiple choice survey the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

— A Yale University survey found that 51 percent of college students favor speech codes.

— A Pew survey found that 40 percent of students think that the government should be able to punish speech considered offensive to minority groups.

— Widely reported is the appalling incident at Middlebury College which prevented Dr. Charles Murray from speaking and resulted in campus violence and the hospitalization of a faculty member. Dr. Murray is a distinguished political scientist and scholar and the author of Losing Ground, which has been credited as the intellectual foundation for the Welfare Reform Act of 1996.

— Other renowned speakers such as Condoleeza Rice, Ben Carson and George Will have been disinvited to deliver commencement addresses because they make some students feel “unsafe.”

Bad as they are, these facts do not tell the whole tale of loss and corruption. Following are some examples of how the curriculum has been destroyed across academia. Replacing previous requirements for history courses:

— The University of Maryland offers “Zombies, Fear and Contagion” (the big question addressed is, “why do we fear zombies?”).

— To fulfill their history course requirements, Bowdoin College allows “Lawn Boy Meets Valley Girl,” Williams College allows “Soccer and History in Latin America: The Beautiful Game” and Swarthmore College allows “Cigarette Smoking in the 20th Century.”

When I taught history, we required the History of Western Civilization or U.S. History. Now, of the top 25 liberal arts colleges, only seven require U.S. History to graduate. Of the top 25 national universities, only four require U.S. History to graduate.

Summarizing the carnage, the Washington Post recently reported that it’s possible at colleges like Harvard, Yale and Stanford to obtain a degree in history without ever studying U.S. history.

Sadly, American colleges no longer require rigorous liberal arts / general education that used to be the hallmark of a collegiate career. A recent ACTA report revealed that only 35 percent of schools require a course on literature, and only 18 percent of schools require a course in U.S. history or government.

It is absolutely astonishing to me that American colleges and universities have fallen into such Orwellian sinkholes. Students and faculty who tear down the American flag or shred copies of the U.S. Constitution are celebrated as champions of open-minded multi-cultural acceptance while those who defend the flag and the Constitution are labeled as racists, xenophobes and bullies.

But all is not lost! Fortunately, there are still some stalwarts of freedom, leading organizations such as ACTA, NAS, ISI, YAF, the Ashbrook Institute, all striving to keep constitutional liberty and commitment to principles of democracy alive on our college / university campuses.

Until they have clearly turned the corner and regained lost ground, as a past president of four colleges and emeritus professor of history and government, my advice to parents and prospective students is to shun the liberal arts and turn instead to vocational / technical education programs.

 Newfane native John O. Hunter is a retired college administrator and teacher of history, residing in Hornell.

Board of Regents discuss diversity plan, budget at committee …

The Board of Regents discussed the new diversity, equity and inclusion plan and the budget committee during its Sept. 22 committee meeting.

The diversity, equity and inclusion plan was presented by Lynne Holland, chief diversity officer.

Holland said diversity, equity and inclusion are not just values of the institution, but the entire Bowling Green community. She said the purpose of the plan is to create an environment where every student can be successful, which will lead to greater persistence and graduation.

“This institution can be a place where students can come and be successful,” Holland said. “I really want to be a place that is student-centered and embraces students and staff.”

Student Government Association President and Student Regent Andi Dahmer asked Holland how the plan will create accountability for all minority and underrepresented group. Holland said there have already been conversations with groups such as HOLAS, the Hilltopper Organization of Latin American Students.

With the plan, Holland said she hopes to create a “global village.” She said the plan will move away from specific “boutique” safe spaces on campus, and move toward making the entire campus a safe space.

Board of Regents Chair Phillip Bale said Holland’s vision for the campus is one the board can and will embrace. The plan will be voted on by the entire Board of Regents at the next meeting, on Oct. 27.

Changes to the budget council were discussed during the finance and budget committee meeting. President Timothy Caboni said he has redefined the purpose of the budget council and hopes for a set of recommendations in February and to begin implementing ideas soon after.

Caboni said the new set of goals involve discussing budget models from other universities to be implemented at WKU, the performance based funding model, handling past and potential revenue shortfall that weans off the use of carry forward funds and realigning expenditure investments in a way to reward performance.

The carry forward policy previously allowed programs to determine how to use their unspent money in an upcoming fiscal term. Now, the budget is estimated to use $28,819,000 from carry forward funds to make up for any budget shortfalls.

“It is advisory to the president,” Caboni said of the budget committee. “But I’m pushing them for more advice than they may have delivered previously.”

Members of the academic affairs committee discussed new graduate certificates in biology and health education. Speaking on the new Health Education certificate, Caboni said it will provide flexibility in pursuing a Master’s degree.

Regent John Ridley, during a discussion on the certificates and colonnade courses, said these courses make students a good citizen of the commonwealth, which was discussed at Gov. Matt Bevin’s Conference on Post Secondary Education, which board members attended. Ridley said the job of the university is to not only get students job ready but also make them a well rounded citizen.

Provost David Lee said general education courses in multiple areas of study makes the American higher education system unique.

“This is what makes American college education so special,” Lee said.

During the meeting, the board went into closed session to discuss the “future acquisition or sale of real property by the University.” They discussed the transfer of ownership of several areas of land to the university.

If approved by the full board at the October meeting, the university will accept ownership of properties on Normal Drive and Nashville Road, as well as the Clinical Education Complex on Alumni Avenue.

Reporter Rebekah Alvey can be reached at 270-745-6011 and rebekah.alvey660@topper.wku.

Board of Regents discuss diversity plan, budget at committee meeting

The Board of Regents discussed the new diversity, equity and inclusion plan and the budget committee during its Sept. 22 committee meeting.

The diversity, equity and inclusion plan was presented by Lynne Holland, chief diversity officer.

Holland said diversity, equity and inclusion are not just values of the institution, but the entire Bowling Green community. She said the purpose of the plan is to create an environment where every student can be successful, which will lead to greater persistence and graduation.

“This institution can be a place where students can come and be successful,” Holland said. “I really want to be a place that is student-centered and embraces students and staff.”

Student Government Association President and Student Regent Andi Dahmer asked Holland how the plan will create accountability for all minority and underrepresented group. Holland said there have already been conversations with groups such as HOLAS, the Hilltopper Organization of Latin American Students.

With the plan, Holland said she hopes to create a “global village.” She said the plan will move away from specific “boutique” safe spaces on campus, and move toward making the entire campus a safe space.

Board of Regents Chair Phillip Bale said Holland’s vision for the campus is one the board can and will embrace. The plan will be voted on by the entire Board of Regents at the next meeting, on Oct. 27.

Changes to the budget council were discussed during the finance and budget committee meeting. President Timothy Caboni said he has redefined the purpose of the budget council and hopes for a set of recommendations in February and to begin implementing ideas soon after.

Caboni said the new set of goals involve discussing budget models from other universities to be implemented at WKU, the performance based funding model, handling past and potential revenue shortfall that weans off the use of carry forward funds and realigning expenditure investments in a way to reward performance.

The carry forward policy previously allowed programs to determine how to use their unspent money in an upcoming fiscal term. Now, the budget is estimated to use $28,819,000 from carry forward funds to make up for any budget shortfalls.

“It is advisory to the president,” Caboni said of the budget committee. “But I’m pushing them for more advice than they may have delivered previously.”

Members of the academic affairs committee discussed new graduate certificates in biology and health education. Speaking on the new Health Education certificate, Caboni said it will provide flexibility in pursuing a Master’s degree.

Regent John Ridley, during a discussion on the certificates and colonnade courses, said these courses make students a good citizen of the commonwealth, which was discussed at Gov. Matt Bevin’s Conference on Post Secondary Education, which board members attended. Ridley said the job of the university is to not only get students job ready but also make them a well rounded citizen.

Provost David Lee said general education courses in multiple areas of study makes the American higher education system unique.

“This is what makes American college education so special,” Lee said.

During the meeting, the board went into closed session to discuss the “future acquisition or sale of real property by the University.” They discussed the transfer of ownership of several areas of land to the university.

If approved by the full board at the October meeting, the university will accept ownership of properties on Normal Drive and Nashville Road, as well as the Clinical Education Complex on Alumni Avenue.

Reporter Rebekah Alvey can be reached at 270-745-6011 and rebekah.alvey660@topper.wku.

Feds offer compliments to Western Governors University in response to report urging school to repay $712M

bwood@sltrib.com

New building, renovations bring ‘leading edge’ to Newman

When classes began in late August, Newman University President Noreen Carrocci walked into the brand-new Bishop Gerber Science Center.

A student held the door open for her.

“Welcome to paradise,” the student said.

The Bishop Gerber Science Center – a 52,400-square-foot facility housing chemistry, biology and physics – was dedicated Thursday evening. The dedication included a blessing from the Most Rev. Eugene Gerber, bishop emeritus of Wichita.

University officials say the building and the newly renovated health care education areas in Eck Hall will benefit the Wichita area as students graduate with medical degrees or use their undergraduate degrees to pursue studies in and then enter fields like chemistry and nuclear physics.

“People don’t realize how we affect the medical community, but also the number of students we put into the business community,” said J.V. Johnston, vice president for university advancement. “The medical community will grow a little bit, I think it will, but the real growth is going to come in supporting companies in our city, the Kochs, the Cargills, the Cessnas, Learjets, those type companies. Those are who are going to benefit the most in my opinion.”

The new building and renovations cost about $24.5 million, money raised from individuals, foundations and corporations.

The Bishop Gerber Science Center includes five faculty and student research laboratories. There were no such laboratories in the Heimerman Science Center.

Johnston said that will allow the university to receive grants and do more research, opportunities that were previously limited.

About 600 to 700 students major in the sciences, health sciences or nursing, Johnston said. The university expects that number to grow because of the new space.

Vivian Hoang, president of the Student Government Association, said the previous science building was home for many science majors, even if it was old and worn down.

“Our science program has always been top notch, and now we have a building that has caught up to it,” said Hoang, who is majoring in biology and pre-medicine. “I think of it as if we moved on from our little cabin and upgraded to a mansion. The Bishop Gerber Science Center is everything we expected and 10 times more, maybe 100 times. … It’s a marvel what this building has done for us and will do for us.”

David Schubert, dean of arts and sciences and a chemistry professor, said students will have access to nearly “the entire arsenal of scientific instrumentation,” including a DNA resequencer.

This will have a lasting impact on people outside the university, he said.

“Our students go out and they become physicians, they become nurses, they become teachers and they really are thoroughly prepared and well committed to going out and serving society,” Schubert said.

Upgrades to Eck Hall include a nursing lab with two intensive care simulation suites, a nurse anesthesia task training room with two operating room simulation suites and a respiratory care classroom and lab, according to an article in Newman University Magazine.

The Bishop Gerber Science Center includes several socialization spaces where students can study, complete with whiteboards and large screens to plug in computers and iPads.

All undergraduates take one general education laboratory science course, meaning “every undergraduate will get to use the Bishop Gerber Science Center,” Carrocci said.

Carrocci said she wants people to visit the new building.

“See what leading edge looks like,” she said.

New building, renovations bring ‘leading edge’ to Newman

When classes began in late August, Newman University President Noreen Carrocci walked into the brand-new Bishop Gerber Science Center.

A student held the door open for her.

“Welcome to paradise,” the student said.

The Bishop Gerber Science Center – a 52,400-square-foot facility housing chemistry, biology and physics – was dedicated Thursday evening. The dedication included a blessing from the Most Rev. Eugene Gerber, bishop emeritus of Wichita.

University officials say the building and the newly renovated health care education areas in Eck Hall will benefit the Wichita area as students graduate with medical degrees or use their undergraduate degrees to pursue studies in and then enter fields like chemistry and nuclear physics.

“People don’t realize how we affect the medical community, but also the number of students we put into the business community,” said J.V. Johnston, vice president for university advancement. “The medical community will grow a little bit, I think it will, but the real growth is going to come in supporting companies in our city, the Kochs, the Cargills, the Cessnas, Learjets, those type companies. Those are who are going to benefit the most in my opinion.”

The new building and renovations cost about $24.5 million, money raised from individuals, foundations and corporations.

The Bishop Gerber Science Center includes five faculty and student research laboratories. There were no such laboratories in the Heimerman Science Center.

Johnston said that will allow the university to receive grants and do more research, opportunities that were previously limited.

About 600 to 700 students major in the sciences, health sciences or nursing, Johnston said. The university expects that number to grow because of the new space.

Vivian Hoang, president of the Student Government Association, said the previous science building was home for many science majors, even if it was old and worn down.

“Our science program has always been top notch, and now we have a building that has caught up to it,” said Hoang, who is majoring in biology and pre-medicine. “I think of it as if we moved on from our little cabin and upgraded to a mansion. The Bishop Gerber Science Center is everything we expected and 10 times more, maybe 100 times. … It’s a marvel what this building has done for us and will do for us.”

David Schubert, dean of arts and sciences and a chemistry professor, said students will have access to nearly “the entire arsenal of scientific instrumentation,” including a DNA resequencer.

This will have a lasting impact on people outside the university, he said.

“Our students go out and they become physicians, they become nurses, they become teachers and they really are thoroughly prepared and well committed to going out and serving society,” Schubert said.

Upgrades to Eck Hall include a nursing lab with two intensive care simulation suites, a nurse anesthesia task training room with two operating room simulation suites and a respiratory care classroom and lab, according to an article in Newman University Magazine.

The Bishop Gerber Science Center includes several socialization spaces where students can study, complete with whiteboards and large screens to plug in computers and iPads.

All undergraduates take one general education laboratory science course, meaning “every undergraduate will get to use the Bishop Gerber Science Center,” Carrocci said.

Carrocci said she wants people to visit the new building.

“See what leading edge looks like,” she said.

Education inspector general wants to pull student aid from a popular online university


 (iStock)

The Education Department’s Office of Inspector General wants the agency to claw back $713 million in loans and grants from Western Governors University, claiming that the limited role of faculty in courses makes the online university ineligible for federal student aid.

The recommendation in an audit released Thursday could threaten the future of competency-based education, a burgeoning field that believes students should learn at their own pace and move along as they have mastered the material. Western Governors has been at the forefront of the movement and widely praised by Democrats and Republicans for creating an innovative model. With 83,000 students, the nonprofit university has raised its profile with commercials featuring an owl touting it as a flexible solution for busy adults.

Investigators said that while Western Governors’ online, competency-based courses were accredited as distance education programs, they actually operate as correspondence courses that do not involve significant interaction between faculty and students. The distinction matters because a college cannot receive federal loans and grants if most of its students are enrolled in correspondence courses or if more than half of its classes are offered by correspondence.

According to the audit, 62 percent of the 61,180 students at Western Governors in 2014-2015 were enrolled in one or more courses that did not meet federal standards for distance education. Investigators concluded that at least 69 of the 102 courses the university offered at the time had inadequate involvement from instructors. As a result, the inspector general said the department should force the school to return the millions of dollars it has received in student aid.

“The course design materials for all 69 of these courses described courses that would be self-paced, interaction between the students and instructors that would primarily be initiated by students, and interaction between the students and instructors that would not be regular and substantive,” the inspector general report said.

Because the inspector general’s office lacks enforcement authority, the Education Department is under no requirement to act on its recommendation. Still, the audit has rattled Scott Pulsipher, the president of Western Governors.

He said the inspector general’s report has a “narrow application of the statute and regulatory guidance as well as a misinterpretation of . . . what faculty roles are” at the university. He said the school has disaggregated the traditional role of faculty by having some develop the curriculum, teach courses and evaluate student progress.

“Students at WGU cannot enroll for just a course, they enroll in a program that’s a collection of courses they need to complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree. And because of that design, they are required to work with course faculty, program faculty and evaluation during their entire tenure,” Pulsipher said.

But the inspector general found that model dubious and said only a few faculty could be considered instructors.

Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said the inspector general has good reason to be skeptical of competency-based education.

“By its nature, it’s highly susceptible to waste, fraud and abuse because you’re dispensing with the one rock-solid guarantor of integrity that there is, and that is qualified faculty,” he said.

For years, the inspector general’s office has questioned whether competency-based courses should be eligible for federal financial aid. Thursday’s long-awaited report, some four years in the making, is being perceived as the independent body drawing a line in the sand on the issue. The critical report throws into question the viability of such instruction and could create a chilling effect throughout the industry, said Van Davis, the head of policy at Blackboard, an education technology company.

“Even if the department doesn’t accept the IG’s recommendation, it is something that is going to give a lot of institutions pause because they don’t have the political muscle that Western Governors has,” he said. “It could make a lot of companies skittish.”

Education Dept.’s inspector general calls for Western Governors to repay $713 million in federal aid

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General has released the results of a much anticipated high-stakes audit of Western Governors University, with negative findings that could threaten the large online university and, more broadly, the growing field of competency-based education.

Citing concerns about an inadequate faculty role — which the competency-based university contests — the inspector general called for the department to make WGU pay back at least $713 million in federal financial aid.

The final audit report, issued today, also said the nonprofit university, which enrolls 83,000 students, should be ineligible to receive any more federal aid payments.

Experts said the Trump administration is unlikely to follow through on the inspector general’s recommendations, which the department can reject. The department has signaled that it will be a less aggressive regulator than it was under the Obama administration.

WGU enjoys a good track record with its accreditor and broad bipartisan support in Washington, with the Obama administration having often praised the university as an innovator.

The findings of the audit, which began more than four years ago, were not a surprise to most observers.

That’s because the inspector general relied on a 1992 federal law that defines aid eligibility for distance education programs, which many have said poses a problem for WGU, some other competency-based programs, and possibly online education writ large.

The audit report said most courses at WGU do not meet the distance education requirement because they were not designed for regular and substantive interaction between students and faculty members. Those courses instead should have been labeled as correspondence courses, according to the inspector general.

Under the law, a college is not eligible to receive federal financial aid if more than half of its courses are offered via correspondence or if most of its students are enrolled in correspondence courses. The inspector general’s audit report said 62 percent (37,899) of the 61,180 students who were enrolled at WGU in 2014 took at least one of 69 courses (among 102 courses in the university’s three largest academic programs) that failed to meet the distance education requirements.

“None of these 69 courses could reasonably be considered as providing regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors, the key requirement to be considered a course offered through distance education,” according to the report. “Therefore, Western Governors University became ineligible to participate in the Title IV programs as of June 30, 2014.”

As a result, the inspector general said the department should require WGU to return $713 million in federal aid it received during the two years before July of last year, as well as any federal aid it received since then.

The university rebutted the report, both in responses to the inspector general that were included in the final report and on its website.

“Western Governors University respectfully, but strongly, disagrees with the findings in the Office of Inspector General’s draft audit report. WGU is, and has always been, fully compliant with Department of Education regulations since our founding 20 years ago by 19 U.S. governors,” the university said in a May letter to the inspector general. “Our innovative learning model, which has the support of the law, the department, our accreditor and policy makers, is validated by the outcomes WGU is delivering for our 82,000 students and 81,000 graduates.”

Unbundled Faculty Model

In previously released audits, the inspector general has questioned whether some competency-based programs should be classified as being of the correspondence variety. Others have criticized the department and accreditors for their scrutiny of competency-based programs, particularly those that do not rely on the credit-hour standard.

WGU uses the credit-hour standard, even though the U.S. Congress passed a law exempting it from certain requirements relating to the standard.

However, the inspector general found that the university’s unbundled (or disaggregated) faculty model, which is considered one of its primary innovations, runs afoul of federal distance education requirements.

Students at WGU are assigned a faculty member, called a student mentor, when they first enroll. Faculty mentors have at least a master’s degree in their field and are well versed in students’ program requirements, the university said. Mentors work with students regularly until they graduate.

The university also employs a Ph.D.-holding subject matter expert for each course, dubbed the course mentor. These faculty members interact with students as well. In addition, subject matter experts oversee each program of study at WGU. (Students must enroll in a program at the university, not just in individual courses.) And the university employs faculty evaluators, who review competency assessments.

The inspector general, however, found that “only course mentors and evaluators, not student mentors, product managers or council members, could reasonably be considered instructors.”

The report also said interactions between students and instructors were inadequate under the federal law.

“The course design materials for all 69 of these courses described courses that would be self-paced, interaction between the students and instructors that would primarily be initiated by students, and interaction between the students and instructors that would not be regular and substantive,” according to the inspector general. “The course design materials described limited interaction with course mentors that was typically on an as-needed basis and typically initiated by the student. Therefore, we concluded that the school’s faculty composition model did not ensure that the school’s courses were designed to provide the regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors required by the Title IV definition of distance education.”

In an interview, Scott Pulsipher, WGU’s president, said the inspector general’s report was based on a “misinterpretation and misapplication” of statutory and regulatory guidance.

“We vehemently disagree with the inspector general’s opinion,” he said. “We’ve been compliant with the laws and regulations since our founding.”

Pulsipher noted that the university’s regional accreditor, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, backs the university’s faculty model. And he said the inspector general had applied a “very narrow and tight definition of faculty” at the university, compared to the approval by its accreditor and other regulators of WGU’s varied and broad faculty roles.

Congress could intervene by changing the 1992 federal law, as some backers of WGU and competency-based education have been advocating. The university will work with federal and state policy makers, Pulsipher said, to address ambiguity in the law.

“We’ll work together to make sure it gets clarified,” he said.

Student Senate: Members debate ‘Freedom of Expression’ policy …

Discussion of Ohio University’s new interim “Freedom of Expression” policy continued at Wednesday’s Student Senate meeting.

Student Senate members spent 45 minutes debating the policy, which reiterates students’ ability to reserve spaces indoors on campus but otherwise bans “demonstrations, rallies, public speech-making, picketing, sit-ins, marches, protests, and similar assemblies” in buildings.

Many senate members said the policy was broad. Others said it did not define “disruptive” behavior well enough. They also expressed concerns that it did not describe consequences for violations of the policy.

Sam Miller, an at-large senator, said that the university policy was in “retaliation” to a municipal court judge’s not-guilty verdict in the case of one of 70 protesters arrested for trespassing in Baker Center in February.

“This policy is a direct response to how silly the university looked after the Bobcat 70 ruling,” Miller said.

The 70 arrested students are Student Senate constituents, she said, and the senate needed to defend them.

Others defended the policy. They said the university did not intend to curtail free speech with the policy. 

Faculty Senate Chair Joe McLaughlin addressed the senate at the beginning of the meeting. He talked about collaboration between Faculty Senate and Student Senate, the process by which the university amends curriculums and the proposed addition of cultural competency classes.

Serious discussion about cultural competency courses began during Fall Semester 2016. Around that time, an image of a hanging figure was painted on the university’s graffiti wall by Bentley Hall.

McLaughlin said it would be difficult to add a course as a general education requirement because students already have so many requirements. Instead the conversation has shifted toward “bolstering and repurposing” a tier-two requirement such as cross cultural perspectives, he said.

The senate passed five resolutions. Two of them appointed senators to commissions: One appointed Perry Eldredge to the International Affairs Commission, and the other appointed Anna Dirda to the Off-Campus Commission.

Two resolutions altered the duties of executive positions in the senate. The clerk of court is now tasked with upholding the constitutional regulations of the senate in every proceeding instead of the chief judiciary, because the chief judiciary is not present at every general body meeting. The duty to document all proceedings, actions and media coverage was transferred from the judicial panel to the historian.

The senate also passed a resolution to create a regulatory attendance policy. Judicial panel members must now inform the clerk of court 24 hours in advance if they have to miss a mandatory meeting.

The senate entered executive session to discuss personnel matters. Next week it will continue to discuss the “Freedom of Expression” policy and will invite feedback from students at the meeting.

@baileygallion

bg272614@ohio.edu