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The Nineties to Now: The History of WGU

Jan 26, 2023

The 1990s was an era of innovation: Sony unveiled the PlayStation. The Nokia 1011 became the first mass-produced cell phone to hit the market. Furbies landed on shelves (and haunted the dreams of children everywhere). But one breakthrough would rule them all: the World Wide Web. 

In 1995, as traffic picked up on the information superhighway, a meeting of the Western Governors’ Association convened in Utah. Among the topics up for discussion was higher learning. Then-governor of Utah Mike Leavitt had watched as institutions of higher learning grew and grew, becoming more and more expensive. Gov. Leavitt was concerned; was he the only one who saw higher education in his state as unsustainable, at least in the way it was currently delivered?

“A conversation broke out among the other governors, and it was clear that they shared the concern,” Gov. Leavitt said.

The governors all agreed. Higher education–as the 90s knew it–took too long, cost too much, and didn’t ultimately deliver.  

“We wanted to change the face of higher education,” said then-governor of Wyoming Jim Geringer.

“We wanted to change the face of higher education.”

– Gov. Jim Geringer

With the other governors aboard, a task force was formed to address the higher education issue. They wanted to create a new kind of university–and they wanted to use the revolutionary technology of the internet to do it. 

A Revolutionary Approach

Getting a university off the ground wasn’t as simple as signing a paper. There was funding to be found, students to recruit, and curricula to design. No one person could design a whole university, so how much could this one task force do?

Turns out, 19 dedicated governors can do a lot with a little time and a lot of dedication. 

Funding was secured from various sources. While each of the 19 governors contributed a hundred thousand dollars, the money went quickly. But word of this soon-to-be university moved like wildfire; Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, heard about the governors’ efforts and wrote a $500,000 check. 

“There were some miracles that happened,” Gov. Leavitt said.

Soon, more private organizations came on board: IBM, Microsoft, and Cisco all were early contributors. They believed in the governors’ vision for a new approach to higher learning.

This approach wasn’t just new; it was revolutionary. Instead of spending weeks in a classroom, students could pass their courses as soon as they mastered the material with competency-based education. With tuition prices already soaring in the 90s, the governors came up with a plan to offer a flat-rate, term-based tuition, meaning students could take and pass as many classes as they’d like for the same low fee. Finally, when a student was barred from traditional learning due to scheduling and life constraints, an online-only learning model could help more people access education and cut down on building costs. 

One of the biggest challenges for the governors was deciding on a name for their new school. Afterall, a good school needs a good name. And then, it clicked. The day before the governors were due to sign the articles of incorporation, the governors had a name: Western Governors’ University, or WGU. Before signing the articles, the governors donned Western Governors University sweatshirts, which had been printed overnight.

The signing itself was also revolutionary. Rather than signing the document with a pen, the governors each clicked a computer mouse.

A History of Innovation

Once WGU existed, the governors faced another challenge: attracting students. 

“Our first graduating class was one student,” said former WGU president Bob Mendenhall. 

Thankfully, graduating class size increased–a lot. Now, class size averages in the tens of thousands. By the end of 2017, over 100,000 students had received a degree from WGU. The number has continued to grow, and as of 2022, WGU has over 300,000 alumni.

WGU has successfully revolutionized the way higher education can be delivered. While other universities are offering more programs with an online option, they have yet to catch up to the all-online curriculum of WGU. Further, traditional curriculum moves along at a snail’s pace with a credit-hour model. WGU students can fly through their courses as soon as they can prove competency. Finally, while other schools charge tuition that seems unreachable to the average American, WGU’s tuition clocks in at about $7,000 per year. 

Universities as we know them have existed for hundreds of  years. While WGU’s history may be just a blip in the timeline of education, it is a storied history, one that reshaped the way we create and distribute higher education. We are not just a footnote in the timeline of higher education; we’re a milestone. Our university was born from the innovative energy of the 1990s; as technology continues to evolve, we will innovate right along with it.

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