Now in its third decade, Western Governors University (WGU) has students in every U.S. state and has over 100,000 enrolled students—a 230-percent increase since 2011. This growth is particularly notable given that overall higher education enrollment has declined by over a million students since 2011—a decline concentrated in the adult learner population.
WGU is growing quickly, but is it disruptive? Six questions for identifying disruption—as well as a new paper—help us analyze WGU’s disruptive potential.
1. Does it target people whose only alternative is to buy nothing at all (nonconsumers) or who are overserved by existing offerings in the market?
Yes. In the mid-1990s, governors of 19 states across the western United States founded WGU as a way to bring accessible college education to rural populations, especially working adults. Today, WGU students aren’t typical college attendees: The average WGU student is 37 years old, 74 percent are working full time, and 40 percent are first-generation college attendees.
2. Is the offering not as good as existing offerings as judged by historical measures of performance?
Yes. Traditional colleges compete on academic prestige. WGU’s programs are entirely online and the school doesn’t offer the traditional campus facilities and experiences. The school eschews the research focus of more prestigious universities, and President Pulsipher notes that WGU is not an attractive destination for faculty who wish to be a ‘sage on a stage.’ Instead, WGU’s faculty model optimizes for flexibility, and the supports needed by working adults.