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October 1, 2020

Future of Higher Education

College affordability and accountability: Going beyond cohort default rates.

College should be the surest pathway to opportunity. And yet for the million students who default on their student loans each year, it is also a pathway to financial instability. One of the key indicators of whether institutions are leading students toward success or misfortune is the cohort default rate (CDR) – a measure of a school's federal student loan borrowers who entered repayment during the fiscal year and defaulted within three years after entering repayment.

Today, the Department of Education released updated CDR data showing the default rate for students who entered repayment in 2017. Western Governors University’s (WGU) official CDR is 4.1% compared to the national average of 9.7%, demonstrating WGU's commitment to students’ long term academic and financial success. In fact, from 2011 to 2017, WGU’s CDR fell by 38%

and was consistently half the national average, reflecting a concerted effort to provide a career-oriented educational experience and to assist students as they make thoughtful decisions about student loans. 

WGU was founded on the premise that affordable access to workforce-relevant higher education intrinsically enables students to borrow less while achieving better outcomes. The first critical factor in driving WGU’s strong student outcomes is affordability. The average cost to a bachelor’s degree at WGU is less than $17,000 relative to a national average of $90,000. 

Second, in 2013, the university launched its Responsible Borrowing Initiative (RBI), a personalized student advising program aimed at encouraging students to borrow only what they need, not what they are eligible for. Since then, the average borrowing per student (among undergraduates who choose to take out loans) has decreased by 32%—a big factor in the reduction of WGU students’ debt at graduation. 

Third, WGU’s efforts to embed workforce-relevant skills and competencies into the curriculum have paid off for students. In a 2018 survey of graduates by Harris Poll Online, WGU graduates reported an average increase in salary of $18,400 within four years of graduation, compared to an average of $12,400 among other universities in the U.S. 

WGU is an innovative, non-traditional institution of higher education whose students are achieving better-than-average outcomes in a system designed around tradition. By continuing to expand student-centric, personalized pathways to higher education, we can ensure that every learner obtains an affordable degree or credential, reducing their likelihood of default. 

Check out WGU’s policy playbook to learn more about our approaches to affordable learning options, and come back often to the WGU Advocate blog to stay up to date on the latest in higher ed. 


WGU partners with community leaders, policymakers, and fellow educators to lead innovation in higher education and create accessible, affordable pathways to workforce-relevant degree and credentialing programs. To find out about opportunities to join us, contact

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