Higher education is the object of aspiration and frustration. A lofty aim that, while promising opportunity, evokes feelings of anxiety from throngs of students neither academically nor financially secure.

Commissions, boards, and committees spend hours deliberating on the subject. Politicos pontificate about gaps in student achievement. Newspapers and magazines publish story after story detailing the pitfalls of student loan debt.

Above the drone of negativity about traditional, brick-and-mortar universities and for-profit colleges, a hum of optimism lingers. While many people may have lowered their opinions about traditional higher education, non-traditional colleges and learning methods are raising expectations for people willing to explore other options.  

Western Governors University 

Outside the jurisdiction of the University of North Carolina, and outside the reaches of the N.C. Community College System and the doors of North Carolina’s Independent Colleges and Universities, is Western Governors University. WGU is a nationally acclaimed online school, holding promise for a new era in which students are more prone to breaking tradition than conforming to it.  

One such student is Joe Evangelisto, who now works as director of infrastructure at Durham’s Metabolon, Inc., a prestigious health technology company.  

Raised near Washington, D.C., Evangelisto graduated high school without the opportunity to attend a traditional, four-year college. Instead, for eight hours each day he slung boxes in a warehouse. He then took a job as a secretary for a government defense contractor and, slowly, earned his way into a computer job with the same company.  

While learning about I.T. on the job, he got an associate degree through a community college in Virginia. But Evangelisto, a husband and father, wanted a management job, and he knew a two-year degree wasn’t enough to satisfy an employer. He needed a four-year diploma.  

In 2006, he started looking for classes to fit his schedule.  

“I had started and stopped several times with other universities that offered classes for adults,” he said. “It was just problematic. I started doing more research on, ‘What are my real options right now.’”  

His options, it seemed, were schools like Strayer University and the University of Phoenix — for-profit, online schools that in recent years have attracted criticism for expensive programs and sketchy academics. Evangelisto didn’t like the reviews, and he didn’t want to feel like he was just buying his degree.

Then, as he surfed Google one day, he found Western Governors University.  

No adult left behind 

As for-profit online colleges such as the University of Phoenix plummet in popularity, nonprofit universities are on the rise. 

An April 2018 report from Inside Higher Ed cited “meteoric growth” for nonprofit, online schools, and pointed to WGU, which, to-date, has a national enrollment of 112,000 students. WGU is climbing as one of the biggest contenders in the online space. The only other nonprofit to come close is the Southern New Hampshire University, which has both a traditional campus and an online school. SNHU’s online enrollment hit 93,000 last year. The two schools are eclipsing the University of Phoenix, which has dwindling enrollment, dropping below 100,000 students for the first time in 15 years, the report said. 

WGU is gaining traction in North Carolina, giving viable college options to hundreds of nontraditional students like Evangelisto. Founded in 1997 by 19 bipartisan U.S. governors, the school is headquartered in Salt Lake City. Since WGU’s official opening in 1999, affiliates of WGU have formed in North Carolina, Arizona, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington.  

Any student in any state can enroll in any WGU program, but state affiliates of the university give students a more involved experience — with the ability to interact locally with other students, mentors, and teachers. 

WGU North Carolina was established in 2017 under the leadership of Chancellor Catherine Truitt, a former senior education adviser to former N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory. The state put up $2 million in start-up costs, and the Golden LEAF Foundation provided $1 million in matching funds.  

Today, the university is profitable — and fully funded by tuition receipts. 

“We do not take any state or federal money,” Truitt said.  

The university offers undergraduate and master’s degrees and has four schools — business, health and nursing, I.T., and education.  

Evangelisto began his studies in 2008, before WGU expanded, and when online learning was relatively unexplored territory. At first, the school sounded too good to be true.

“I reached out to WGU and said, ‘What’s the deal? How does this really work?’”  

Competency-based education

Letter grades don’t matter at WGU.  

Instead, the school uses “competency-based” education, a system that relies on industry standards over arbitrary or subjective classroom grades. In other words, students progress based on whether they’ve mastered the material, not whether they’ve merely completed a semester’s coursework.  

WGU’s competency-based programs give students the opportunity to show they’ve earned their degrees, Truitt told Carolina Journal 

“Employers complain all the time. … People are not graduating with the skill sets that they need,” Truitt said.  

WGU learns what employers need and want, then prepares students accordingly. When students take a test, their answers are weighed against answers provided by professionals in their field of study, Evangelisto said. 

“If you’re in accounting, [WGU teachers] will reach out to existing accountants who are considered experts, who have done the job a decade or more, and have them take the test,” he said. “The average rate of passing there is the pass rate for the course. You’ve shown you have as much knowledge as someone who is actually in the field and doing the work.”  

“Too many colleges add too much fluff,” he said. “They add stuff that doesn’t really matter today. They teach courses that don’t actually have an impact. Once you get a job, then you don’t know what you need to know because you’ve never done it.”  

Student accountability is another part of WGU’s model, Truitt said. Each student is provided a mentor — someone who is a professional or expert in the career field of interest, with a master’s degree or higher credential. That mentor guides the student through every step of a degree program.  

One such mentor is David Hicks, a former educator of 32 years. Hicks was ready to retire. When Truitt asked him to be a mentor he was intrigued by the competency-based approach.  

During his 13 years as a school principal, Hicks transitioned from a traditional public school to an alternative high school that served at-risk youth from troubled backgrounds. Under his leadership, the school successfully adopted a competency-based learning style, similar to WGU’s.  

“We wanted to make the pacing right for what the student needed,” Hicks said. “If they were having trouble with one class, we needed to give them some extra time with that class. 

“On the other hand, if you’ve got a student who does very well in the class, why do you make them stay in the class for a whole semester, when they’ve got it done in just a few weeks? And that’s how WGU works.” 

Today, Hicks mentors between 70 and 100 students in WGU’s school leadership master’s program.  

“I call every student weekly,” he said. “We talk about where they’re at, about what’s going on, about whether they’re behind or ahead, or if there’s any life issues that pop up, or might slow them down. We can kind of adjust for that. I’m a little bit of a mentor, and a tutor, and a life coach.” 

Mentors are mandatory. They help students make on-time progress, Truitt said.  

When WGU North Carolina opened, it enrolled 1,100 students. That number has since grown to nearly 3,000.  

Truitt’s goal is to reach 11,000 by October 2022.  

Low-cost tuition is another factor that makes the university an attractive option, Evangelisto said.  

WGU charges an average of $3,400 for a six-month term and allows students to take “all-you-can-eat” credits, Truitt said. A minimum of 12 credit hours is considered a full-time load. Students can take more if they want, all at no additional charge.

The model requires self-discipline and structure and is tailored for those who can maintain their own schedule and remain motivated, Evangelisto said.  

“Early on I had to learn what worked best for me.”

Evangelisto got up at 6 a.m. each day and studied for two hours before work. He read, took tests, and wrote papers — pushing through the wee hours of the morning.  

“That’s when I realized this is how I function. Today, that’s how I arrange my work. If I have to get things done, I schedule them before noon.”  

Evangelisto finished his undergraduate degree and went on to complete his master’s — also through WGU.

A solution by degrees 

More than 900,000 of North Carolinians ages 25 to 64 have some college, but no degree, according to a 2018 report from My Future NC.

About 1.3 million, or 24 percent, have a high school or general education diploma. Five-hundred and fifty thousand residents, 10 percent, have an associate degree.  

Sixty-seven percent of North Carolina jobs will require postsecondary education by 2020, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce predicts.  

North Carolina must get to work educating non-completers, Truitt said.  

“In North Carolina we have a shortage of nurses, we have a shortage of teachers, and we have a shortage of IT professionals. That’s three of WGU’s four colleges,” she said.  

Whether North Carolinians choose a traditional, or non-traditional path, one thing is certain: They should be given the facts about the highs, and the lows, of education, Truitt said.

“There has to be more information given to students as they are applying to college. ‘What’s going to happen when I graduate? Where am I headed with my degree? Am I going to be able to get a job? What career am I going to have if I’m an English major?’

“There have to be alternatives.”