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August 13, 2020

WGU Receives Grant to Support Underserved Students Impacted by COVID-19

Nonprofit university will broaden outreach to displaced students and assist faculty at traditional college systems with transition to online delivery

SALT LAKE CITY — Western Governors University (WGU) and WGU Advancement—the university’s fundraising arm—announced today that the university will be able to implement four projects that remove barriers to quality, access, and outcomes across the education-to-opportunity lifecycle that have been a result of the COVID-19 pandemic with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Given COVID-19’s impact on higher education—from permanent campus closures to decreased public spending on programs that help underserved students attending public colleges and universities—WGU anticipates a significant increase in the number of displaced students in the short-term. The goals of the grant-funded initiative are increasing the percentage of students that complete degree programs on time, boosting the economic return for graduates, and expanding equitable access and attainment to students.

“This initiative has a clear focus on supporting underserved students—primarily low-income and minority populations—that have been displaced due to the pandemic’s impact on higher education,” said Annalisa Holcombe, President of WGU Advancement. “COVID-19, combined with pre-existing dynamics in higher education such as declining public funding and student debt, make intentional and collaborative initiatives like this even more important to support our most vulnerable students.”

WGU has outlined four distinct focus projects as part of the initiative:

  • Expanding outreach to financially distressed institutions and their students: The university is developing anticipatory, intentional campaigns based upon its “Finish Strong” efforts, which have previously supported other institutions that close campuses—and the students impacted by those closures—with the transfer process and through scholarships for displaced students. These outreach campaigns will be targeted, research-based, and built upon relationships developed with local educational authorities and accreditation entities. 
  • Building additional support and services for displaced students: The university will leverage its social-emotional learning framework and personalized faculty model to develop training for its enrollment counselors and faculty members focused on the specific needs of the displaced student population. It will invest in mechanisms to track unmet need for these students with particular attention to pre-existing student loans and other costs associated with transfer.
  • Creating mechanisms to support credit transfer: WGU will create nimble pathways that mirror other institutions’ degree programs in order to build multiple new programs in its current system for complete articulation and to ease transferability for displaced students.
  • Delivering institutional supports to public higher education systems: Beginning with  a professional development webinar series for 300 faculty and instructional staff members from the City University of New York (CUNY), WGU will provide faculty development in online course design and delivery, assessment design, and proctoring, targeted at institutions that serve a broader population of low-income students and students of color.

WGU was the nation’s first online, competency-based university and today, with more than 123,000 students and 190,000 graduates, is the largest. The nonprofit university has already begun research and planning for the initiative and will host a series of webinars in the coming weeks to support CUNY. The WGU/CUNY web series is designed for CUNY faculty who have some online teaching experience and provides a forum to refine their expertise in an engaging community of practice. 

“The support provided by this professional development program will enable an additional 300 CUNY faculty and instructional staff to further improve the online- and hybrid-learning experiences of our students throughout the University,” said CUNY Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost José Luis Cruz. “While many CUNY faculty had taught online prior to the Spring 2020 semester, this four-part webinar series, thanks to the generosity of our partners at Western Governors University and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will help them further develop their online teaching strategies, as remote learning continues to play a transformative role across the higher education landscape.”

About WGU Advancement

WGU Advancement is a nonprofit fundraising foundation created by Western Governors University to expand access to and accelerate innovation in education. A 501(c)(3) organization, Advancement's focus is on complementing and enhancing the WGU vision to reinvigorate the promise of higher education. In addition to scholarships and other initiatives aimed at increasing access, Advancement raises funds to support development of innovative programs, research, and technologies that will improve educational quality and student outcomes. Learn more at

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