Here’s the good thing about bad times. They make you, often enough, stop dead, saying, “Whassamatter?”  And, equally to the point, “What can we do actually to make things better?”

In the Hoover Institution’s splendid quarterly publication Education Next, Jon Marcus, higher education editor for the Hechinger Report, brings to light the success story of an alternative to the present, troubled higher education model.  It’s called competency-based education, and the anticipated outcome is, unremarkably enough, competency at what the student trains to do.

The 20-year-old online Western Governors University specializes in letting students progress at their own pace – fast or less-fast – while regularly assessing their work.  WGU is a “bipartisan collaboration from an era when such cooperations still happened,” writes Marcus.  Nineteen states set it up.  It’s independent and non-profit.  It works with business to find out what’s needed out there in the marketplace and how best to teach the same.  Look elsewhere, such as Evergreen College, for oppression studies and the like. WGU concerns itself with the disciplines of education, business, health, and information technology.

“Graduates,” Marcus reports, “hold top jobs at the likes of Aetna, American Express, Coca-Cola, Delta and United Airlines, JPMorgan Chase, Pfizer, and Toyota.  This year the university debuted new degree programs in the hot field of data analytics.”

How can you not love it – the marketplace signaling, WGU responding to the signal with instruction and oversight (oversight is big at WGU) that prepares students for productive careers without costing them an arm and one or two legs.

The WGU method looks more and more like that proverbial “wave of the future.”  Really – how much higher at standard-type universities can tuition go?  Which may not be problem for students seeking to learn how Eurocentric white males reside at the heart of our modern cultural anxieties.   Not that you need a Vassar education to figure that out, when the New York Times will generously explain it to you.

If we’re talking about skills, nevertheless, tailored to the real, not the imagined, needs of today, a modern student might want to give WGU a whirl.   Average cost there for a BA: $15,000.   “In the academic year that just ended,” says Marcus, “the average annual (italics mine) resident tuition at public four-year universities was $9,650; for nonresidents, $24,930; and at private, nonprofit universities, $33,480, according to the College Board.”  Not counting room and board and Netflix.  At WGU you live at, and probably work outside, your home.

It’s not for everybody, the WGU experience.    Nor should one overlook the value of life in an academic community of the old-fashioned sort, absent safe spaces and the moral exactions felt necessary in administrative offices these days to atone for the Sins of the Past.  Read about it anyway: Education Next. Fall 2017.

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