For most of my life, I have gone through what I can only describe as “seasons of interest” in a variety of topics. My parents, my brother and my wife can actually list many of these seasons if you ask them. It is just part of who I am. Periodically, I’ll get very interested in a particular topic. I’ll stay interested for a period of time ranging from a few months to a few years. While I am focused on this topic, I tend to learn all I can about it. After I have learned all I’m interested in learning about a topic, I tend to move on to a new one. This has served me well in my Information Technology (I.T.) career because in I.T. technology is constantly changing, and you need to enjoy learning just to keep up.
In the spring of 2012, the idea of going back to college and earning a degree started to interest me. Sixteen years earlier, I made the decision to quit college to focus all of my time on a web hosting company I had started back in the early days of the internet with a friend. That ultimately transitioned into a great career in I.T. and I simply never made it back to school. I don’t regret this one bit.
Choosing a University:
Thankfully, by the spring of 2012 when I began to think seriously about going back to school to earn a degree, there were a tremendous number of non-traditional options for college available. I investigated a lot of the offerings that were available at the time. What I quickly learned was that there were a lot of online degree programs that were far less than ideal. Honestly, some of them border on being outright scams.
Many online schools are not regionally accredited. Unaccredited schools might indeed offer a great education, however some organizations will not recognize a degree from these institutions as being valid. So, attending a regionally accredited school quickly became a top priority for me. After all, if I was going to put in the effort, I wanted a degree that was backed by the credibility of it being earned from a regionally accredited university. Once I crossed all of the unaccredited schools off of my list, I began to focus on other two other key factors.
Key factor #1 for me was looking for a program that would truly be self-paced. Since I own and run a business, I have periods of time where I work 60+ hour work weeks and I simply don’t have much time for anything else. Other times, I might have a slower week, where I would be able to dedicate a larger than normal portion of my time to school work. So, finding a truly self-paced program was key for me.
Factor #2 for me was cost. Somehow in this crazy world we live in, we as a society have accepted the idea that borrowing an enormous amount of money to go to college is simply normal and ok. I suppose if you earn a degree that leads to a tremendous salary the math might work out doing this. However, if you go to a high priced school and accrue tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and come out earning a very small amount of money, your future is going to be financially difficult. As a small business person, I know that cost matters. So, while cost was not my primary consideration, it certainly was a key consideration. Ultimately, I wanted to try to go to a college that I could pay for out of pocket as I went. After all, I was going to be a Business Management major. A good business person should always be looking for a good value – right?
I will not get into all of the details of my search, but I will say that it quickly became clear that Western Governors University (WGU) was the perfect fit for my education needs. They are fully accredited, fully self-paced and very affordable.
In addition to being accredited, self-paced, and affordable WGU uses a “competency-based model”. This model seeks to measure your competency in an area, rather than a more traditional model that measures how much time you spent learning about a topic.
Here is a simple example of this. If you as a WGU student have a math class you need to take, and you can prove you are competent in the subject material covered by the class by passing a proctored exam, or producing a work product of some kind (paper / presentation / spreadsheet etc) WGU will let you take the exam or produce the work product, pass that class, and move on. WGU could not care less if it takes you three hours, or three months to learn the material. They are measuring your competence, not how long it took you to become competent.
This competency based model sealed the deal for me. I am a very goal oriented and task focused person. I like being told what the goal is, then being turned loose to accomplish it. So, the WGU model was a perfect fit for me.
In very early May of 2012 I called in and spoke to a WGU Enrollment Counselor by the name of Michael. Over the next few weeks Michael helped me through the WGU application and acceptance process. WGU starts a new term at the beginning of each calendar month. Terms are six months long. I was targeting a June 1st start date. I admit, once I get interested in something, I can be a bit impatient. I took and passed an entrance exam which focused heavily on math and writing. I also got my high school and college transcripts sent directly to WGU, and I completed a few other tasks to keep the process moving along. In the end, I had only one college class that transferred.
I opted to work towards a B.S. in Business Management. While I did consider several of the I.T. majors which would have leveraged my I.T. knowledge, I was more interested in filling out my business experience with some formal business education. After a couple of weeks I was accepted and approved to start on June 1st. Michael was a huge help, and I am very thankful for all of his help.
Getting started as a WGU student:
Michael soon passed me off to my “Student Mentor” named Nick. At the time, I did not understand how valuable Nick’s help was going to be to me. WGU uses a mentoring model where every student has a “Student Mentor”, and every class has one or more “Course Mentors”. After experiencing it first hand, I can say with confidence that this is a great model.
The Student Mentor essentially serves as a single point of contact with the university. Whenever I had any sort of issue related to my WGU education that I could not figure out how to deal with on my own, I would simply get in touch with Nick and he would get me pointed in the right direction.
Nick and I setup a weekly call schedule. Even though our calls were short (probably never more than 15 minutes) they proved to be invaluable. During each call Nick and I would talk about where I stood and what I needed to focus on next. He optimized my time by making sure I took courses in the most efficient order. When I was busy with work and unable to dedicate much time to school, my weekly calls with Nick served as a reminder to keep my WGU work a priority. I credit Nick with keeping me on track and out of trouble while I was a WGU student.
As I mentioned earlier, each course has one or more Course Mentors who are essentially subject matter experts in the area covered by the particular course. I honestly only reached out to a course mentor for “live” help two times. Once, this was in an online live webinar, and the other time was an individual appointment. However, I made extensive use of the material that the course mentors published in the WGU Communities (private WGU student forums). Many times these materials would include videos or guides to focus your learning. These resources were invaluable. If you are a self-motivated person who learns well on your own, WGU provides all of the materials you will need.
WGU suggests that students spend 15 – 20 hours per week on school work. This seems like a great general guideline, but because of my work situation the reality for me was that some weeks I spent 40+ hours on school, and at other times I went several weeks having spent nearly no time on school at all. While my guess is this is not at all typical, because WGU is truly self-paced, this worked out ok for me.
Before I started at WGU, Holly (my wife) and I had prepared ourselves for several years where our family time would be limited. Let’s face it, that 15-20 hours per week has to come from somewhere. My expectation was that I would complete the WGU B.S. in Business Management in about four years. The average WGU student completes a WGU degree in about two years. However, that average student might have considerable transfer credit from previous college courses or might have just been laid off and have unlimited time to focus on school. So, I expected that in my case it was going to take me longer than normal. Thankfully, I was wrong.
Getting the work done:
One of the first calls Nick (my Student Mentor) and I had was a call to determine what classes I was going to take during my first term. Maintaining satisfactory academic progress is very important at WGU. I honestly did not understand all of this at first. Nick really helped keep me on track, and out of trouble in this area. So, Nick helped me pick the first few classes that I would commit to take during my first term. Once those were chosen they became active, and I started to work.
One of the things I learned to love about the WGU experience is the “My Degree Plan” tab in the WGU student portal. That tab shows every class you need to take and pass in order to earn your degree. For me, this just became a massive to-do list. I LOVE to-do lists.
Essentially WGU classes measure competency in one of two ways. This is done either by “objective assessments” (think: proctored exam) or a “performance assessments“(think: writing papers / creating presentations / producing videos etc).
Classes that have objective assessments also have a pre-assessment (think: practice test) that lets WGU know if you are ready to take the real assessment or not. If you pass the pre-assessment with a score 10 points higher than the cut score for the real assessment, WGU will let you take the assessment, prove you are competent in the subject matter and move on. So, at Nick’s suggestion I started taking pre-assessments like crazy to see where I stood on many of these courses. It turns out, that over the years I had learned a lot about many of these topics while working in the business world. I actually passed all of the pre-assessments the first time I took them. Unfortunately, I did not pass all of them with high enough scores to take the real assessments. So, I quickly settled in and began focusing on attacking these objective assessments. In my view, these were the “low hanging fruit”.
Often, I would study a topic well enough to pass the pre-assessment with a high enough score to take the exam, and then I would ask Nick to approve me taking the exam. He always did this quickly. For the first couple of months I was knocking out objective assessments left and right. The objective assessments are given using an online test delivery tool, and proctored electronically by a person who watches you through a special web cam that WGU provides to prevent cheating. Having someone watch you VIA a webcam is a bit strange at first. However, it is worth the convenience of being able to take these tests from home rather than going to a testing center.
Early on, as I made progress with the objective assessments, it started to become clear that this was not going to take me four full years.
While Nick heartily approved my taking and passing objective assessments he also encouraged me to get to work on some of the classes with performance assessments. No matter how well you know a subject these performance assessments take time. So, I started working on classes with performance assessments as well. I have always preferred taking tests to writing papers. It is not that I mind writing; it is that it simply takes me longer.
For many classes with performance assessments you must complete multiple tasks. WGU uses a system called taskstream.com. Essentially, you complete the tasks that are specified and upload them to TaskStream where they are graded based on a rubric and sent back. I had a love / hate relationship with TaskStream. While, I can’t think of any better way to do it that would scale, the process can be a bit irritating. Essentially the graders are looking for lots of specific items in your work. If your work has all of those items covered well, your work will pass. If you don’t correctly cover even one item on the rubric, your paper will be sent back for a revision.
In my case, I believe that roughly half of my work passed the first time, and the other half came back for what were usually minor revisions. This annoyed me a bit at first, but I decided to channel that annoyance. Each time a task came back for revision, I would revise it and resubmit it as quickly as possible. I know there were multiple times that I had revisions uploaded within one hour of the paper coming back. In my head I figured I was “sticking it to the man” by doing this. This is probably not a valid thought at all, but it helped me channel my aggression which was useful.
After I completed all of the other classes, I began work on my Capstone project. As a business management major this is essentially a fully fleshed out business plan for a startup company. I really enjoyed doing this, and it was a perfect project to pull together and demonstrate all that I had learned. I probably invested about 30 – 40 hours total in this project. Thankfully, it passed with no revisions with a 3.9 the first time I submitted it.
- In the end, it took me just under ten months to complete all of the work required to earn my B.S. in Business Management from WGU.
- My total cost was $6,135 ($65 application fee + $3,035.00 per term for two terms)
- The value I got from this experience has been absolutely exceptional. If you are an adult considering going back to college to earn your degree, I would strongly urge you to consider WGU.
Here are some specific resources I would suggest that you review if you are interested in doing this.
What’s next for me?
For many people earning a degree would qualify them for a better job. In my case, it really does not. I love the work that I do, and I am well compensated for it. As I mentioned early on I tend to go through “seasons of interest”. A few of those topics over the years have “stuck”. By stuck, I mean that I have maintained an interest in the topic long term.
One of those areas of interest that stuck a long time ago is I.T. security. WGU happens to have a M.S. in Information Security and Assurance. I already have a fair amount of background in this area, but the WGU masters program will certainly offer me the chance to learn even more. So, on June 1st, 2013 I start all over again with WGU as a student in the Information Security and Assurance program.
–W. David Winslow