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Can Data Tell If Higher Ed Is Delivering on Its Promise?

Can Data Tell If Higher Ed Is Delivering on Its Promise?

by Scott Pulsipher

The promise of higher education is opportunity -- a fulfilling career, increased wellbeing, greater earning potential -- and ultimately social mobility and a better life. When fulfilled, this promise extends beyond the individual to families, elevating potential and impact for generations to come.

But how do higher education leaders know if we are delivering on this promise? With tuition increasing by twice the rate of inflation over the past 20 years, $1.5 trillion in student loan debt and completion rates under 60%, the value of higher education is more in question today than at any time in the past century.

Yet, the demand for skilled workers continues to grow and the gap between the number of jobs requiring postsecondary credentials and the supply of qualified graduates is widening. Higher education must be more effective in delivering on its promise -- it's imperative for individuals, families, employers, communities, our economy and our country.

Since Western Governors University enrolled its first student 20 years ago, the university has been data-driven and student-obsessed. We track student progress, retention, completion and satisfaction, and we even poll employers of our graduates to get feedback on graduate preparedness and performance. These metrics help us identify needed innovations and improvements and inform new efforts -- and, while these data have proven useful, we wanted to know more.

Five years ago, WGU began our partnership with Gallup to capture more information about the longer-term outcomes of our alumni. We wanted to go beyond job placements and salaries to learn more about how WGU is delivering on some of the more intrinsic reasons students attend college -- not only to secure a good-paying job, but also to pursue a fulfilling career path, have a rewarding life and positively contribute to society.

Gallup has established measures designed to gauge workforce and life outcomes, including employee engagement, wellbeing and emotional attachment to one's university. In addition, Gallup has identified five elements of wellbeing -- career, social, financial, community and physical -- and, based on a series of questions, can determine whether individuals are thriving, struggling or suffering in each element.

As an online university with a model that personalizes learning and provides faculty support tailored to each student, we were particularly interested in knowing how we compare with more traditional colleges and universities. Gallup's study compared feedback from WGU alumni with the national Gallup Alumni Survey (formerly the Gallup-Purdue Index), a representative sample of more than 70,000 U.S. college graduates.

What we learned provides strong support for WGU's faculty model, particularly our Program Mentors, who regularly meet one-on-one with students from enrollment to graduation. Two-thirds of WGU alumni (67%), compared with 35% of alumni nationally, strongly agree that they had a mentor during college who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams. The data also show that those who had a Program Mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams were more likely to be thriving in their wellbeing after graduation.

WGU alumni are twice as likely as college alumni nationally to be thriving in all five elements of wellbeing. Their career wellbeing, with 57% thriving, is particularly high, surpassing the national average by 18 percentage points. This is, in part, because the majority of WGU students enroll with a career goal in mind (consistent with national surveys noting over 70% of students name "finding a good job" as their primary consideration for attending college) and find employment directly related to their field of study upon graduation. The findings also suggest that WGU alumni are finding ways to engage in work that fulfills them.

Our Gallup study gathers alumni feedback related to many other elements of the college experience, from academic quality and relevance to alumni attachment. The research continues to supply us with invaluable data, which we track annually, that extend beyond retention rates, employer feedback and student satisfaction surveys. Most importantly, the data provide real insight into our progress toward realizing WGU's vision: to deliver an educational experience that leads our students and their families to great lives.

To learn more about the WGU alumni outcomes study, download the 2019 report.


Scott Pulsipher is President of Western Governors University. Find Scott on Twitter @Pulsipher_WGU.

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