Today I had the privilege of speaking to the Oversight Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. The Sub-Committee convened a hearing to address Expanding access to higher education and the promise it contains—there is no question that I am more passionate about. Here is what I said:
President Pascrell, Kelly Fellow and Distinguished Members of the Sub-Committee, I am grateful to you for convening this hearing today and for the opportunity to offer perspective on a subject that is at the heart of the founding of WGU. . The promise of higher education is in dire need of renewal to adapt to the times we live in. My name is Scott Pulsipher; I am president of Western Governors University.
WGU is a private, non-profit institution founded in 1997 by a bipartisan group of 19 governors who saw the opportunity to leverage technology and skills-based education to expand access, improve outcomes and better align learning with the needs of the workforce. Our mission is to change lives for the better by creating pathways to opportunity. Today, we serve over 130,000 full-time students, 70% of whom would fall into one or more categories of underserved populations.
The idea that the path to opportunity should be open to all is at the heart of our common ideals as a nation. This idea remains a bipartisan goal and championed not only by our elected leaders, but by every parent and every person in this country.
Unfortunately, it is increasingly clear that higher education has failed to deliver on this promise as a great equalizer. According to the Pell Institute, students in the highest income quartile were almost five times more likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree by age 24 than those who grew up in the lowest income quartile. For advantaged students, the academic path can be a natural extension of the life path – for those who are marginalized, it can be a mountain crossing.
For higher education to fulfill its promise, it must be a path that can be traveled by each individual—Where students have the flexibility, support and quality of instruction to succeed. The future of work requires the continuous acquisition of new skills and knowledge in order to advance in one’s career and life. To remain competitive as a nation, higher education must meet the diverse needs of Americans throughout their careers, both for the first and the next opportunity.
And, for higher education to be a path, it must lead to an opportunity. While this may seem obvious, this is not a conclusion that emerges from a study of higher education outcomes. Nationally, six-year completion rates hover around 60%. For black students, they are closer to 40%. For financially independent students, half of the current enrollment, it is estimated that only one in three will complete their degree. For too many people, higher education is a path to nowhere, riddled with debt.
Perhaps more importantly, higher education must not only be affordable, but valuable. Public investments in higher education must translate into progress and economic mobility, and a better life. The Post-Secondary Value Commission, supported by the Gates Foundation and the Institute for Higher Education Policy, found that 649 institutions leave their students with zero economic returns after accounting for the cost of attending school. Many ideas for solving higher education problems today often focus on how to help pay for it. And they have to pay, like the adjusted for inflation the cost of higher education has increased by 120% since 1985. Those who claim that this burden is too heavy for students to bear are quite right. We need more accountability for the cost of education, not just new payment models.
But for today’s learner, affordability is not the only barrier, and often not the most difficult to overcome. Lack of flexibility – in planning, modality (online or in class), location, interaction with faculty – limits student access, progression, and completion. The policy must take into account the critical challenges of completion, cost, relevance and, ultimately, value. We are doing taxpayers and higher education institutions a disservice too much favor, by simply shifting the costs of higher education without serious reform.
I am grateful to the subcommittee for the opportunity to share my perspective and share the example of WGU. Our tuition and fees are less than $ 8,000 per year. Our skills-based model and flat-rate pricing allows students to progress at a pace that suits them. Through our Responsible Borrowing initiative, we have reduced per student debt at graduation by 32% over the past seven years to just over $ 14,000 today – less than the half of the national average. According to Gallup polls, 77% of our graduates say it was worth it, compared to 37% of students nationwide. We offer degrees and credentials aligned with in-demand job areas, and map learning outcomes to needed skills. Our graduates are employed at rates equal to or above national averages, with income gains almost double the national average.
At WGU, we know how accessibility and flexibility are important to increase both access and success. I am proud that WGU is living proof that America can do better in higher education – and on behalf of our individuals, our families and our society, we desperately need it. I am ceding my time to the Subcommittee and look forward to discussing these issues in more depth.