Meeting the Needs of Post-Traditional Students

By Sally Johnstone
Vice President for Academic Advancement, WGU

In the past 20 years, the types of people enrolled in colleges have changed. This is likely to continue as state after state sets goals for the percentage of its citizens who need some type of post-secondary credential.

These goals cannot be met with only the usual group of high school graduates.

Today, the majority of post-traditional students are 25 or older and juggling work and family responsibilities. Universities must develop programs to fit the needs of these students rather than expecting all students to fit into a traditionally structured system. WGU was designed to serve just this set of students. It was developed as a competency-based education institution.

Interest in competency-based education, or CBE, is growing throughout the field of higher education. Instead of being designed around semesters or classes, CBE allows students to advance by demonstrating that they have mastered the skills and knowledge designated by the faculty. With CBE, students, not the institution, set the pace. We acknowledge that students come to college with varying levels of knowledge and very different ways of learning. CBE lets them move quickly through what they already know so they can focus on the things they still need to learn. This saves students time and money.

The CBE model has proved successful with thousands of students, such as recent WGU Texas graduate Erika Thomas, who continued to put her degree on hold because she needed a flexible schedule for learning. A layoff was a wake-up call for Erika to get her degree and be marketable to employers. She made it a full-time venture and completed her degree in six months. 

There’s also Mary Harris, who chose WGU Texas because the CBE model allowed her to apply what she already knew from her nursing career.

CBE is gaining widespread acceptance and positive recognition from the White House, Congress, many states, and leaders throughout the higher education community. I recently had the opportunity to share WGU’s success in CBE during the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s TAB (Texas Affordable Baccalaureate) Lab in Austin, which was attended by many higher education institutions developing their own CBE programs.

As the U.S. continues to look for ways to grow and sustain a well-trained and educated workforce, higher education institutions need to expand the options for earning a college degree. WGU is a real trailblazer in this space and is a proof of concept for CBE. It focuses on measuring and ensuring learning, which is an innovation that works for the 21st century.

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