Is Western Governors University Accredited? Is WGU Legit?

March 4, 2024

is western governors university accredited? Is wgu legit?

So, you’re curious about Western Governors University (WGU) and you want to know if this online university is legit, accredited, and, potentially, worth your time. These are great questions. It’s worth starting by explaining a bit about WGU, and then we’ll dive into the school’s accreditation status and the most recent controversy concerning the school. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Education inspector general conducted an audit and found that WGU wasn’t meeting basic guidelines, recommending a $713 million fine against the school that has not been imposed. So, is WGU Accredited? Is WGU Legit? Let’s explore…

What is Western Governors University? 

Western Governors University gets its name because it was started in 1997 by 19 governors after a meeting of the Western Governors Association. But the creativity doesn’t stop there. The school—a private, not-for-profit, online institution—employs a competency-based education model. This means that students can display their “competency” in a subject matter at any given time during the degree process. This occurs through a prescribed form of assessment.

So, instead of sitting in a Composition course for an entire semester, students could produce writing samples at a predetermined level that showed their skillset as soon as they were prepared. This competency-based model means that students could potentially spend less time in the classroom. The model raises questions about the point of a degree and a learning environment, however. For example, perhaps the point of a degree is to further develop skills across time and a competency-assessment could hinder further student development.

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Regardless, it’s the model that WGU uses.

How WGU runs these competency-based courses is what brought them under fire with the Department of Education. It has not, however, hindered their ability to be a regionally accredited university.

About Accreditation 

Colleges, universities, and all kinds of vocational programs get themselves accredited by outside institutions in order to demonstrate their legitimacy. Accrediting institutions set out specific standards and guidelines for course content and learning objectives that a college or a program must meet in order to become accredited. If a school is accredited by a recognized accrediting body, it means that the school is following best practice protocols to create a relevant, useful, and valuable educational experience for its students.

Drexel University, a globally recognized, private research university in Philadelphia, has put together a guide to accreditation.

They write, “Educational institutions are either regionally or nationally accredited. Accreditation is a voluntary process that ensures a college, university, or degree program meets a universal standard for quality. This gives an institution and its graduates credibility with other institutions and employers.”

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This distinction between national and regional accreditation is important to note. National accreditation focuses on vocational or technical programs. Regional accrediting bodies focus on academic institutions, including state-owned and private not-for-profit colleges and universities.

If you’re going to attend a university, you want to verify it is accredited by a recognized regional accrediting association. Drexel lists those associations in its guide. This will not only ensure that you are attending a well-structured program that will prepare you for whatever step follows graduation, but it will also ensure that you have the ability to do things like transfer courses to another accredited school, should you choose to change directions. Employers and graduate schools will also recognize your accredited institution and be able to better verify your education as legitimate.

Now, let’s move into examining whether WGU is legit/accredited.

How is WGU Accredited? 

WGU is accredited by the “Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), an institutional accreditation body of colleges and universities in a seven-state region that includes WGU’s headquarters of Utah,” according to WGU’s website. NWCCU is a regional accrediting body. See the above section About Accreditation for more on what this means.

On that page, you can see that WGU’s Teachers College is also accredited by CAEP, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, and CAEP is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

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The teacher licensure program is also accredited by the Association for Advancing Quality in Educator Preparation (AAQEP). AAQEP is also recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

This accreditation has not kept WGU from coming under fire.

Western Governors University Scandal 

Following concerns about an “inadequate faculty role,” the United States Department of Education inspector general conducted an audit of WGU in 2017 and called for the school to pay back $713 million in federal financial aid, according to Inside Higher Ed.

The inspector general claimed that the competency-based education model employed by WGU caused the university’s courses to fit the definition of “correspondence courses.” The amount of faculty-student interaction at WGU is comparatively low. This is because students are responsible for making contact with professors and for following course content. In order to qualify for federal financial aid programs, colleges and universities cannot program more than half of their courses to run as correspondence courses.

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“​​The inspector general’s audit report said 62 percent (37,899) of the 61,180 students who were enrolled at WGU in 2014 took at least one of 69 courses (among 102 courses in the university’s three largest academic programs) that failed to meet the distance education requirements,” according to Inside Higher Ed’s Paul Fain.

“None of these 69 courses could reasonably be considered as providing regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors, the key requirement to be considered a course offered through distance education,” according to the report from the Department of Education.

Western Governors University rebutted this claim in a letter written in May of 2017, claiming that it “respectfully, but strongly, disagrees with the findings” from the audit. WGU claimed that it has always been fully compliant with the Department of Education’s regulations.

“Our innovative learning model, which has the support of the law, the department, our accreditor and policy makers, is validated by the outcomes WGU is delivering for our 82,000 students and 81,000 graduates,” WGU wrote.

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Both the Obama and Trump administrations have been friendly and laudatory of Western Governors. As a result, many speculated that the fine would not be imposed by the Trump administration after it was called for. And that’s just what happened.

In 2019, under former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, WGU was not required to pay back those $713 million in federal financial aid money. The Department of Education was less interested in cracking down on schools under DeVos. In a letter sent from the Department of Education to WGU in 2019, the department wrote that it would not pursue the return of the funds, citing information from WGU itself, its accreditor, and “the ambiguity of the law and regulations and the lack of clear guidance available at the time of the audit period,” according to Inside Higher Ed.

The Office of Federal Student Aid claimed that WGU had “made a reasonable and good faith effort” to comply with federal regulations and to provide “substantive” communication between teachers and students, Inside Higher Ed reported.

Perhaps obviously, WGU was pleased with the outcome. In a statement, the university wrote, “As we have done since our founding by U.S. governors 22 years ago, WGU will continue our work to expand access, improve quality, and optimize outcomes for students.”

There were many critics of the outcome in favor of WGU.

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In his article about the controversy, Inside Higher Ed’s Andrew Kreighbaum quotes Spiros Protopsaltis, the director of George Mason University’s Center for Education Policy and Evaluation and a former Education Department official. Protopsaltis said that the Department of Education shouldn’t be lowering the bar for university conduct simply based on the positive outcomes of one school.

“Instead we should raise the bar for quality and rigor,” Protopsaltis said. “Given the evidence on the importance of interaction between students and instructors for student success, requiring and enforcing such interaction is imperative.”

In an opinion article in Forbes, Michael Horn wrote that the audit and fine would have “chilled” innovation in education.

Regardless of opinion, the controversy ended with the lack of enforcement of the fine back in 2019. WGU has continued to operate since that time.

Notable Western Governors University Alumni 

It’s worth noting just how many of the notable alumni are in some way affiliated with the federal government.

Paul Ayers, Rhode Island Air National Guard major general
Andre Barnett 2012 Reform Party presidential nominee
Hiram Bertoch, author, An Otter’s Guidebook to Being Obnoxiously Happy
Michael Capps, Former member of the Kansas House of Representatives
Sarah Fisher, Retired professional racecar driver
Gregory Fowler, University of Maryland Global Campus President
Glenna Gallo, Current Assistant superintendent of special education with the United States Department of Education
Gregg Hale, former guitarist for the rock band Spiritualized

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Connie Keogh, Current member of the Montana House of Representatives
Chaunté Lowe, American athlete and four-time Olympian
Ethan Manning, Current member of the Indiana House of Representatives
Tiffiny Mitchell, Former member of the Oregon House of Representatives
Paul Ray, Member of the Utah House of Representatives
Sami D. Said, Retired lieutenant general in the United States Air Force
Leila Staffler, Current member of the Northern Mariana Islands House of Representatives
Amy Summers, Current delegate with the West Virginia House of Delegates

Is WGU Accredited? Is WGU Legit? The Bottom Line

Being that WGU is an online university, it won’t be topping our list of Most Beautiful Campuses any time soon. And, of course, if the only thing you need to worry about as a student is compliance with federal regulations, you don’t need to sweat about the safety of this university, either.

With so many online universities, the question of whether or not to trust them and apply for them really comes down to what will suit your life the best. If you really need an online-only option and you don’t find the nature of the competency-based education model to be a challenge for you, then it could be worth doing more research and finding out if WGU is a good fit for you.

Of course, there are lots of accredited online programs, and it is certainly worth informing yourself about the wide range of options that exist before you decide to spend your money (or your federal financial aid money) on one specific school.