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WGU Nevada chancellor sees workforce needs driving evolution of higher ed

Spencer Stewart of WGU

L.E. Baskow

Q&A with Spencer Stewart, chancellor of WGU, on how higher education is responding to the need for teachers in Southern Nevada and to employers seeking an increasingly STEM-savvy workforce on Thursday, August 31, 2017.

Roughly 20 million Americans, a group the size of Florida’s population, are enrolled in college courses this year. That may sound like a lot, but not to Spencer Stewart.

“That number needs to double,” said Stewart, the chancellor of WGU Nevada, “and it should have doubled yesterday.”

Stewart said higher-education institutions overall have failed to meet employers’ need for a better educated workforce to keep up with transformational innovations in technology. The nation’s colleges and universities also have struggled to serve individuals whose jobs have been changed or eliminated, and need the tools to adapt.

Enter WGU Nevada, established in 2015. Part of the Western Governors University system of nonprofit online institutions, created in 1997 by 19 U.S. governors, WGU Nevada offers a nontraditional pricing system in its four accredited degree programs — teaching, IT, business and health.

If you know WGU only as the school with commercials featuring a talking owl, you might be surprised to learn that it is the largest institution of its type in the world and produced 18,000 graduates last year.

Last week, The Sunday sat down with Stewart to discuss higher education’s challenges, the needs of Nevada employers, how WGU Nevada is helping with the Clark County School District’s teaching shortage and more.

WGU Nevada

• Established in 2015 by proclamation from Gov. Brian Sandoval

• Offers more than 60 undergraduate and graduate degrees

• Serves more than 2,400 students and has awarded more than 1,600 degrees

What’s the biggest challenge for higher education in terms of the workforce?

There's great disruption that's taking place, and there's a lot of anxiety in the marketplace. People are asking, “What will my job look like in five, 10, 15 years? Will I even have a job?” So it's incumbent upon higher education to figure out how it takes its offerings to scale, how it changes its business model in order to help these individuals who will be displaced and who will need retraining. We have to think differently about how we deliver that.

It used to be this notion that someone goes to college after high school, and for four years they get everything they need to serve them in their career. It's not happening anymore. And so how does higher education change so that instead of becoming a one-off event, it becomes a lifelong event that walks hand in hand with that individual?

How is WGU responding to those needs?

The governors who started WGU had a three-fold goal — to increase access, improve quality and reduce cost. In their discussions, they decided that this needs to be a competency-based institution, which is built on the premise that instead of measuring seat time, we're actually going to measure learning.

Our tuition model is not one that is based on the credit hour. It's a subscription-based model, where for a flat fee — $6,000 for a full academic year — it allows the student to learn as much as possible. This creates a wonderful incentive for students to learn as much as they can. I think it's a key reason that our students, on average, graduate in three years with a four-year degree. A four-year degree for $18,000 all-in is a really good deal.

That figure of 40 million students, is it based on what you’re hearing from employers?

There is this disconnect, and I think both sides of the fence in a candid moment will speak to this. When you look at how higher education is doing in its core mission of producing graduates who can quickly add to industry and the growth of industry, a lot of industry executives will tell you that higher education is not producing what we need. And so in turn, they’re spending billions and billions of dollars a year to retrain what higher ed is producing. But then when you ask the chief academic officers (at universities) how they're doing, they'll tell you, yeah, we're doing an excellent job.

So to the slate of offerings — primary, associates, bachelors, masters, doctorate — with the way the economy is going, should we be thinking about alternative credentials? Does it really require what should be a four-year stint — because the average time to complete a four-year degree is roughly six years. How do we create new credentials that meet the demands of a new economy? And how do we deliver teaching and learning in perhaps an on-demand setting, an on-demand format?

That's the big question for the higher education community.

What kind of specific needs are employers relating to you?

Public universities have the ability and luxury to have a wide degree of offerings, and as a liberal arts major I support that. For us, though, we're much more narrow.

So if you look in our College of IT, we're looking at bachelor and graduate work in network administration, network security, cybersecurity, data analytics. In fact, those latter two programs are the last two within that college that we have launched, and we've seen incredible demand, particularly within the cybersecurity space.

From a national perspective, with defense, and then from a corporate perspective, cybersecurity is an area that will quadruple within the next 10 years. Without a doubt.

How do you contend with the perception that online degrees lack value?

When the governors had this idea, the burden of proof was on them ... to prove that the product was as good as, if not better than, the gold standard. So every year, we have to assess that. We do comprehensive surveying of our graduates and the employers of our graduates. One is done through Harris and the other is done by Gallup.

A few years ago, Gallup got into the business of assessing graduates, and they first did this in collaboration with Purdue, so it's called the Purdue Gallup Index. And now we have a rich data source, because they've been interviewing graduates across the country. So now we're able to have comparison studies between our graduates and all other graduates. When we first did this three years ago, Gallup came back to us and said we have to review our results because there is such a wide gap between the norm and how your graduates are scoring (the results in five categories were far above the norm).

And in terms of employer satisfaction, over 90 percent say our graduates meet or exceed their expectations.

So is there this perception that an online program is subpar? There used to be skepticism. Used to be. But the tide has turned.

Study after study over the last few years ... show that the outcomes associated with an online program are as good as and in some cases are better than a traditional bricks-and-mortar degree.

CCSD has a teacher shortage. You have a teachers college. How can you help?

It's a complex problem. At its height, within Nevada, when you factor in all of the teachers colleges and what their pipeline looked like, you had roughly 6,000 individuals in a program designed to enter the teaching profession. Today, it's half that. Why? Much of it has to do with the way the profession is perceived today. There's sentiment that it's over-regulated. And I think the teaching profession needs to do a much better job of communicating the positive aspects such that it will be conducive to a millennial.

There’s also a retention problem. A significant portion of those who start the profession leave within five years. So when I came on board it was one of my top priorities — how to help the state and how to be a partner with the other teachers colleges to increase that pipeline. I think our model is helping. In the last two months, we've enrolled over 60 new students in our teachers college, and that's just in the undergraduate programs.

I think our next area for investigation is helping teachers succeed once they're in the classroom. My wife and I are big supporters of CCSD. We're both products of CCSD, our children attend the new Josh Stevens Elementary School, and before that they were at C.T. Stewell, a Title I school, the same school their grandfather attended.

So we have a personal stake in the success of CCSD, and it certainly comes down to better teachers, better administration and a culture of empowerment, but also helping teachers succeed once they're in the profession.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to correct the number of degrees offered by WGU Nevada.

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