Cost effective adult education: might it influence secondary education?

An article in The Washington Monthly titled “The College For-profits Should Fear” describes the founding and growth of Western Governors University. It uses an on-line model with some twists:

  • Course credits based on assessments completed. If you pass the final assessment, you get credit for the course… even if you just took the initial course assessment a few days earlier.
  • Tuition is charged per semester, not per course enrollment. This encourages students to complete as many courses per semester as they can, as it can save them money.

From what the article describes , this model seems most successful with older students – people who know what they seek, and don’t wish to waste time getting there. The WGU model is interesting for several reasons:

  • It has tuition levels that are around 40% or less that of other on-line programs, about $6,000 per year.
  • It employs full-time Mentors, who serve as a combination of guidance counselor, tutor, cheer-leader, and ombudsman for students. While they seem to provide a regular point of contact between students and the degree program, the article does not specify how many hours per week of such contact a typical student receives.
  • It uses industry-based standard assessments whenever possible as culminating assessments. The goals of the programs are therefore hopefully better aligned with the professional goals of the industries it is preparing students to enter.

The low tuition means that this model represents a significant productivity gain for higher level education (from a student’s perspective… IF this model appeals to them). The Mentors provide regular human interaction, which has the potential to meet many students’ need for social motivation (something that seems lacking in many on-line offerings). The use of third-party professional assessments as the basis for granting course credit when possible ensures alignment with existing standards, while providing a basis for accountability of both students and course developers. This isn’t just another Standards Based Grading effort… it takes it to a higher level: Standards Based Credits.

But… if this approach does not seem to appeal to college-age students as much as it does to (presumably more self-directed) older students, what lessons could WGU offer for secondary-level education?

1. Without commonly accepted standards, secondary schools may not be pursuing goals that serve the best interests of today’s students.
– Should we have more than one set of standards for secondary school education? Perhaps a minimum standard to be completed be all students, a second level standard for students who are not interested in applying to highly competitive colleges, and a third level standard for students who do wish to apply to highly competitive colleges?
– What should the specific standards for a secondary school education be, and who should set them? The Federal Government? The Educational Testing Service? Colleges (if so, which)? State Legislatures? Secondary school administrations? Local School Boards? Some combination of these?

2. Facilities and labor costs account for the major part of the cost of education. If both can be reduced, education can realize productivity gains.
– Technology can allow collaboration and learning to take place with lower transportation costs (in both money and time). However, it does not seem to eliminate the need for adult supervision.
– Technology can allow assessments to be both automated and improved to provide more significant diagnostic information about each student. This alone, if done well, could increase teacher productivity tremendously.
– Self-directed students cost less, often much less, to support. Might it be possible for us to raise a generation of much more self-directed students? If so, how?
– Administrative overhead costs increase when students are physically at school all day. If a large percentage of students telecommute to school, school overhead can be reduced. Could this work at the secondary level? Obviously the home-school market is already an ideal candidate for this approach, but how could it apply (if at all) to students from families where both parents work given the need for adult supervision?

3. The social aspects of education can both help and hinder student learning. Is there a way to increase helpful social aspects while decreasing the ones that get in the way of learning?
– What meaningful incentive do teenage students have to apply themselves diligently to their studies every day? Is it an interpersonal one based on their families or teachers? Is it the requirements for college admissions? Expecting a teenager to work diligently of their own accord towards a long term goal is not very realistic for most students. What meaningful short term benefits can we provide for getting up every day and devoting their energies to learning these topics?
– Can educational technology and approaches help meet the social needs of teenagers in a constructive way? Can their social interactions consistently improve their educational progress?
– What types of social interactions are a necessary and critical part of secondary education, yet are hurt by greater use of technology?

Many questions, few answers. However, if we as a society wish to educate students well in an environment where capital is relatively cheap and labor is increasingly expensive, we need to either investigate such questions or reduce the cost of labor relative to capital. If we don’t, education costs that increase significantly faster than inflation year after year will drive our communities into bankruptcy.

By Whit Ford

Math tutor since 1992. Former math teacher, product manager, software developer, research analyst, etc.


  1. Interesting and thought-provoking.
    I do feel, as online education increases in scope, that we need to constantly ask ourselves questions about the difference between training and educating. Profession-based assessments may be more about measuring training than education. There is certainly a place for this, but we should ask critical questions every step of the way.

    1. Christopher,

      You always have good insights! Yes, I agree that WGU seems to be focusing more on training, and less on educating. Most people need both, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes not.

      Do you know of any good, automatable assessments of education? The Physics Concepts Inventory sounds like it is a step in the right direction for Physics… but do similar assessments exist for other subjects? Ideally, a computer should be able to produce a list of concepts mastered, followed by a list of mis-conceptions, for each student. That would let teachers focus more on planning class time, and less on “grading”.


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