Congressional Testimony: Renewing The Promise Of Higher Education – Forbes

Today I had the privilege of speaking to the Oversight Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. The Subcommittee convened a hearing to address Expanding Access to the Higher Education and the Promise it Holds—there is no issue on which I am more passionate. Here is what I said: 

Chairman Pascrell, Ranking Member Kelly and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, I am grateful for your convening this hearing today and for the opportunity to offer perspective on a topic that is core to WGU’s founding. The promise of higher education is sorely in need of renewal to fit the times in which we live. My name is Scott Pulsipher; I serve as president of Western Governors University.  

WGU is a private, non-profit institution founded in 1997 by a bi-partisan group of 19 governors who saw the opportunity to leverage technology and competency-based education to expand access, improve outcomes, and better align learning with workforce needs. Our mission is to change lives for the better by creating pathways to opportunity. Today, we serve more than 130,000 full-time students, of whom 70% would be classified in one or more categories of under-served populations.  

The idea that the pathway to opportunity should be open to all is core to our shared ideals as a nation. This idea remains a bipartisan objective—and one held not just by our elected leaders but by every parent and every person in this country.  

Sadly, it is increasingly evident that higher education has not lived up to this promise as a great equalizer. According to the Pell Institute, students from the highest income quartile were nearly five times more likely to earn a Bachelors’ degree by age 24 than those who grew up in the lowest income quartile. For advantaged students, the education pathway can be a natural extension of life’s journey—for those marginalized, it can be a mountain traverse.  

For higher education to fulfill its promise, it must be a pathway that can be traveled by every individual—where students have flexibility, support, and quality of instruction to succeed. The future of work demands the continual acquisition of new skills and knowledge in order to progress in one’s career and life. To stay competitive as a nation, higher education must meet the diverse needs of Americans across their careers, for both the first and next opportunity.  

And, for higher education to be a pathway, it must lead to opportunity. While that may sound obvious, it is not a conclusion that reveals itself from a study of higher education’s outcomes. Nationally, six-year completion rates hover at 60%. For Black students, they are closer to 40%. For financially independent students, half of today’s enrollment, it is estimated that only one out of three will complete their degree. For too many, higher education is a path to nowhere, paved with debt. 

Perhaps most importantly, higher education must not be just affordable, but valuable. Public investments in higher education should result in progress and economic mobility, and a better life. The Postsecondary Value Commission, supported by the Gates Foundation and the Institute for Higher Education Policy, found that 649 institutions leave their students with zero economic return after accounting for the cost of attendance. Many of the ideas to address higher education issues today often focus on how to help pay for it. And pay they must, as the inflation-adjusted cost of higher education has risen by 120% since 1985. Those who argue that this burden is too heavy for students to bear are absolutely correct. We need greater accountability for the cost of education, not just new models of paying for it.  

But for today’s working learner, affordability is not the only barrier, and often not the most difficult to overcome. Lack of flexibility—in scheduling, modality (online or in classroom), location, faculty interaction—limit student access, progress, and completion. Policy should consider critical challenges of completion, cost, relevancy, and ultimately, value. We do taxpayers a disservice, and institutions of higher education too many favors, by merely shifting the costs of higher education without serious reform.  

I am grateful to the Subcommittee for the opportunity to share my perspective, and to share the example of WGU. Our tuition and fees are less than $8,000 a year. Our competency-based model and flat-rate pricing allow students to progress at a pace that is right for them. Through our Responsible Borrowing Initiative, we have driven per-student debt at graduation down by 32% over the past seven years to just over $14,000 today, less than half the national average. From Gallup surveys, 77% of our graduates say it was “worth the cost” compared to 37% of students nationally. We offer degrees and credentials aligned with in-demand job fields, and map learning outcomes to needed skills. Our graduates are employed at rates at or above national averages, with income gains nearly double the national average.  

At WGU, we know how important affordability and flexibility are to increasing both access and attainment. I am proud that WGU is living proof that America can do better in higher education—and on behalf of our individuals, families, and society, we desperately need to. I yield my time to the Subcommittee, and I look forward to discussing these issues in more depth.