In an unparalleled model of 360º wrap-around student support, WGU helps each student it enrolls by enveloping them in a robust Community of Care. This combination of faculty, staff, and student services support ensures each student has the necessary support they need to succeed at each step of their educational experience. There are lessons learned over the last two decades that other educators and administrators can benefit from. In this three-part series, Dr. Stacey Ludwig Johnson gives readers a ‘fly-over’ view of this Community of Care model. She is the Western Governors University Teachers College Vice President of Operations.
At WGU, student support starts at hello. I’ve worked here for more than 20 years, and we’ve been student-centered from day one. The services and support we provide our students, however, have grown exponentially over that time. It’s exciting to see this growth because it supports our mission to open pathways to opportunity and remove barriers to education for all students. While it would be difficult and lengthy to list all the services we offer students, this series provides a view into some of the most important connecting dots in that web of support.
From the moment a prospective student reaches out to our admissions team by way of phone, email, or filling out an application form, a dedicated team joins forces to help that prospective student make a strong start and make good decisions based on their unique circumstances. There is nothing one-size-fits-all about WGU, so each student is valued and treated as an individual with unique needs and career aspirations. Navigating higher education can be tricky, especially for first-generation students who are not familiar with higher education’s complex processes, so we try to ensure we have a team guiding the student at each step of the journey.
Admission personnel will receive and process the application and, when appropriate, engage the Transcript Review Team if the student has prior credits. The Admissions team also works with the Enrollment Counselors team at the beginning of this process to ensure a dedicated Enrollment Counselor is assigned to each student, acting as their guide through the process of applying, admitting, and enrolling in the University.
In some cases, students reach out directly to an enrollment counselor via the website before applying, which is fine. Enrollment counselors staff the main phone line and are available to speak live with prospective students Monday – Friday from 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. MT and Saturdays from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. The Counselor assigned to each student works directly with that student to ascertain what the student’s needs and goals are.
They counsel the student on best fit degree programs, and answer questions about how the degree choice translates into the job market. While our degree programs do not vary state by state, licensure requirements do vary, and the Enrollment Counselor can help advise students on what will be required in their state. The Enrollment Counselor (EC) also advises on the more social and emotional aspects of the decision to pursue a degree and will help identify what constraints the student has that must be balanced with learning, such as jobs and family. The EC may also help connect students with Veterans Affairs, accessibility services, or other affiliate team members designed to meet specific and unique need cases and accommodations such as ADA concerns.
Another important role of the Enrollment Counselor is to advise the incoming student on the WGU scholarship opportunities that are available for that course of study, potentially connecting them with Financial Aid and Scholarship Team members. In 2020, WGU granted $6 million dollars in scholarships to students in the Teachers College.
In the past requesting transcripts has been a laborious process, but today we have moved from paper transcripts being mailed across the country to what is now an advanced electronic system. This means students who had to wait 30 days in the past to see what prior course work transferred in can now know in as little as three days. Our database of the most transferred courses is huge, and this data helps speed the process and alleviate that mystery of what transfers may apply to each student’s chosen degree program. In addition, WGU is currently running a pilot program where our staff requests the transcripts for our students, further reducing any friction for incoming students.
This is personal to me because my daughter just entered college in Colorado, where we reside. Even after 20+ years working in higher education student services roles, I’m seeing things through a new lens. For her to qualify for state-based scholarships, she had to complete the FAFSA – which stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It has a reputation for being an arduous form to complete, and that was certainly our experience. If I have a career in higher ed and a Ph.D. and I’m struggling to help her, I worry about students new to this process. I’m pleased to know that our students at WGU don’t have to try to go that alone and can lean on our Financial Aid staff, who act in a concierge-like capacity.
Once the financial aid team members determine how much aid a student can qualify for, our team also counsels them on how much to accept. This is part of WGU’s Responsible Borrowing Initiative. This is something a lot of universities don’t talk about – as a student you don’t have to take all of the aid that is available.
We counsel students to take only as much as they truly need so they aren’t graduating with a lot of debt. On average, students at WGU graduate with about half of the debt of the national average. Of course, we also work diligently to keep our tuition low which makes an enormous difference in how much they need to borrow.
WGU is designated a Top 10 Military-Friendly University and has a united focus on providing opportunities to our enlisted military, veterans, and their families. These people have served our country, and our faculty and staff want to serve them by helping them meet their educational goals and forward their careers, whether in the military or as civilians. WGU programs are approved for the Veterans Affairs benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill®. WGU offers scholarship programs for military personnel, veterans, and their families. The competency-based model allows those service men and women to apply what they learned in the military to advance their degrees and careers, often in an accelerated timeframe when they can prove competency by passing the assessments for each course.
This is a good time to point out the benefits of a well-planned and executed student relationship management system. Busy working adults are not going to complete the getting started process successfully if they must explain themselves and their needs or situation each time they speak to a new person. We’ve worked to remove that hurdle. The student relationship management system at WGU is robust and enterprise-wide, but because of very intentional permissions granting, limits what different faculty and staff can see. The end win for the student is their conversations, and special needs or concerns are logged so when they reach out for support the people helping them can see what each student’s situation is and what services they have accessed, preventing the student from having to spend the time explaining everything about their situation to a new contact. This is also incredibly helpful to students if someone they are working with needs to take a leave of absence or vacation. The web of support provides constant, up-to-date visibility into what each unique student has asked for and been given to support their journey.
Since 2017, Stacey Ludwig Johnson has served as Vice President of Academic Operations for WGU’s Teachers College. In this role, she leads the largest competency-based Teachers College in the nation with responsibilities that include guiding the faculty operations, field experience, and enrollment. Stacey joined WGU in 1998 as an early pioneer of competency-based education. She was privileged to enroll and mentor WGU’s first cohort of students. In roles ranging from Director of Financial Aid, Registrar, and Associate Provost of Academic Services, she led the design and build of the key student experiences in financial aid, records, orientation, library services, career services, alumni relations, field experience, and student services. Stacey has dedicated her career to WGU because she firmly believes in the mission to change the lives of individuals and families. The Teachers College provides a unique opportunity to extend this mission beyond the boundaries of WGU into classrooms and communities across the nation. Stacey holds a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Innovation and is relentlessly focused on increasing access and student success.