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When Anjeanette Armstrong decided to return to school for her bachelor's degree, she was concerned about how to fit education into a busy lifestyle that already included a bustling family and burgeoning career. Logistically it seemed impossible. "The thoughts of commuting to a local campus and sitting in a classroom for hours after a full day at the office wasn't at all appealing to me," notes Armstrong. "I'd done it before while earning my associate's degree five years earlier. It was difficult—and now, with two small kids at home, it seemed physically and mentally impossible."
Still, Armstrong feared that her career would be stalled unless she completed her bachelor's degree. At the time, Armstrong was (and still is) working for PacifiCorp, one of the West's largest and lowest-cost electric utilities, within the company's human resource department. While she loved her job, after four years she was eager for more responsibility and more advancement within the company. "I enjoyed what I was doing but really wanted to get into instructor-lead training and development," she explains. "I wasn't sure it was going to happen unless I went back to school. PacifiCorp offers a generous tuition reimbursement program, so the only thing stopping me was figuring out how to balance it all."
Armstrong says she liked the convenience and flexibility that online education offered, but feared her online degree wouldn't have the same value to employers as a degree from a traditional school. She also questioned whether she would get just as good of an education online as she would in a regular classroom setting. Her first concern was laid to rest when PacifiCorp's human resource department decided to participate in a pilot program with Western Governors University (WGU), the nation's first competency-based online university that's also accredited and nonprofit. "The fact that WGU was sanctioned by my employer meant a lot to me," says Armstrong. "PacifiCorp is a highly respected, award-winning organization, and I trusted them to investigate the University's accreditation and the quality of the programs they were offering."
Janna Sondenaa is the eLearning Manager for PacifiCorp Learning, a training and development team within PacifiCorp's human resource department. Instrumental in rolling out the 2002 pilot, Sondenaa explains the company's interest in WGU. "We [PacifiCorp] wanted to help our employees identify accessible learning options. We recognized the value WGU's program offered to working adults, and wanted to see if our employees would be interested in this type of alternative learning program. Online learning was still pretty new at the time."
Sondenaa points out that the decision on whether to study online or in the classroom is entirely up to the employee. "The benefits are there," notes Sondenaa. "We don't care which direction our employees take, we just want to help them succeed and do what we can to assist them in identifying quality degree programs." Five employees participated in the pilot program, but since 2002, many PacifiCorp employees have gone on to graduate from WGU. "Over the years, PacifiCorp's relationship with WGU has been a very positive one," confirms Sondenaa.
Armstrong was one of the pilot participants. She graduated with her Bachelor of Science degree in Human Resources only 18 months after enrolling. Almost immediately, she saw the benefits of earning her degree. Six months after graduation she was promoted to trainer/developer and now teaches employees business and leadership skills, computer systems, and how to use eLearning in the workplace. "I always knew I would have to finish my degree in order to move my career forward, but I wasn't quite sure how to do it," says Armstrong. "WGU provided the opportunities I needed to succeed. With the completion of my degree and the knowledge I gained throughout the process, several opportunities have and will continue to open up for me."
Armstrong is definitely onto something when you consider that a bachelor's degree earns on average more than $2.1 million over 40 years, compared to $1.2 million for high school graduates. Still, Armstrong feels that even more important than the financial benefits she has gained are the lessons she has learned about herself and her capabilities. This she credits to WGU's competency-based model, which allows ambitious students to accelerate their progress and graduate sooner if they have existing competencies in their field of study or can commit significant time to their program. Students demonstrate competency by passing rigorous assessments—typically tests, projects, and a portfolio-that measure skills as they move through their degree programs. Students are never required to study subject areas that they already know. For students like Armstrong, who have significant work experience yet lack a degree, this is a huge plus. It can shorten their time to completion, and keep them interested and challenged.
"I was so grateful that the program was competency-based," notes Armstrong. "It would have been painful to sit through classes that I had significant experience in. Not only would it have cost me more time and money, it would have been redundant. I think that's why a lot of adult learners drop out of traditional programs—they take too long and are way too inconvenient for people with full-time jobs and family obligations."
Research indicates that's she correct. Traditional college programs can take the part-time student up to 10 or more years to complete, and most students get frustrated and drop out before earning a degree. Sadly, it's not uncommon for students to participate in the "enroll and drop out" cycle several times. Not only is this costly for the student, it's costly for the employer who may be paying up to 100 percent of the tuition and fees as part of the company's tuition assistance program (TAP). Corporate America spends $11 billion annually on higher education, and most companies offer tuition reimbursement as a matter of course. As tuition costs continue to rise, many companies are looking for more efficient ways to manage their TAP dollars and ensure a maximum return on their investment.
Many high-profile employers have found that reimbursing for "nontraditional" programs such as online learning can help tame mounting TAP costs. Ideal for the working student, online education programs significantly reduce the time it takes to complete a degree. They're also highly flexible. Asynchronous programs, such as those at WGU, allow employees to log on and learn whenever or wherever it's convenient for them, thus enabling them to pursue a degree with as little impact as possible on their current work schedule and obligations. That's welcomed news for employers.
The financial savings of competency-based learning are also significant. The faster a student progresses or the more competencies an employee brings to a WGU degree program, the less money the company ends up paying out in TAP benefits. What's more, because WGU is non-profit, created by the governors of 19 states to expand access to higher education, TUITION IS LESS THAN HALF what other universities charge. This saves employers and employees even more.
"I've done both traditional and online learning while working full time," says Armstrong. "Online was far better for me, my family, and my employer. Sitting in a classroom for hours after a long day at the office left me physically exhausted. It was difficult to be productive at work the next day. At WGU, I was able to log on and learn when it was convenient for me—during my lunch hour or after I put the kids to bed. I could even take a day of vacation to concentrate on getting a project done. My WGU education didn't interfere with my job responsibilities and I didn't miss any of my kids' events—that kept me happy, sane and focused."
Looking at it from an HR professional's perspective, Armstrong is quick to point out that happy employees make better employees. "If an employee is feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, their job performance suffers. While working on my degree program at WGU, I actually felt more productive and confident in my job responsibilities. Many of the assignments that I was required to complete as part of my degree program were similar to projects I was working on at the office. My knowledge was immediately transferring over to my job and having a positive impact within my organization. It was exciting. I could see that I was growing in value in my employer's eyes."
Of course, it wasn't all smooth sailing for Armstrong. There were tough times, but thanks to a good support system, she was able to succeed. "I had lots of support, which I think is essential to achieving any goal," says Armstrong. "My husband and parents were really there for me at home, and WGU offers its students a plethora of information and learning resources. Initially, I was concerned that without having face-to-face interaction with classmates, I'd fall behind," admits Armstrong. "WGU's Education Without Boundaries orientation course really put my fears to rest. I learned more about WGU's mentoring program, student chat rooms, and the University's impressive online library. I was amazed at all of the help available right at my fingertips. And my faculty mentor gave me more personalized attention than I'd ever received before from a professor."
Unique to WGU, the University's faculty mentoring program is almost as innovative as its competency-based model. Each incoming student is assigned a faculty mentor. Students work with their faculty mentor to develop a personalized Degree Plan that maps out their programs, taking into account their existing work and professional experience, their learning style, and how quickly they want to progress. And it doesn't end there. Faculty mentors act as the students' daily guide, friend and primary point of contact within the University. The relationship provides that on-on-one interaction many students think they'll have to sacrifice for the convenience of studying online.
"To be assigned a mentor that I could email and get immediate feedback from was incredibly helpful. In a traditional environment, you're passed on to so many people. Getting questions answered in a timely manner is almost impossible. Having one consistent person who cared about me and my projects and who knew my work and my style was, in my opinion, instrumental in my success," explains Armstrong.
WGU proved itself to be flexible and highly valued, but what about Armstrong's concern that her online curriculum would be as challenging as a traditional degree program? Has WGU and its competency-based model adequately prepared her for the challenges of a demanding career in human resources?
"I feel better prepared by WGU's competency-based learning experience than other degree programs I've been involved in," notes Armstrong. "The assessments were rigorous, and passing them made me feel like I had really mastered the material. I also learned to be more self-sufficient. When I was studying topics that I wasn't familiar with, I found myself studying more in-depth. Now I know that I don't always have to go to my supervisor for answers on the job. I can usually find the answers myself. As an HR professional, I think most organizations want their employees to be self-reliant and competent. WGU teaches its students to be that way."
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