Since its inception, Western Governors University (WGU) has aimed to serve learners otherwise shut out of the traditional system. Now, the groundbreaking institution has both graduated 100,000 students and has over 100,000 students currently enrolled. These milestones demonstrate WGU’s ability to scale its high-quality, low-cost model, signaling a momentous shift in the higher education landscape.

In the mid-1990s, governors of 19 states across the western United States were concerned about bringing accessible college education to rural populations, especially working adults. These governors, led by Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, decided to explore building a new university to address the challenge. As the memorandum of understanding between those governors that officially marked the founding of WGU stated, “The strength and well-being of our states and the nation depend increasingly on a strong higher education system that helps individuals adapt to our rapidly changing economy and society. States must look to telecommunications and information technologies to provide greater access and choice to a population that increasingly must have affordable education and training opportunities and the certification of competency throughout their lives.”

Now in its third decade, WGU has students in every U.S. state and has over 100,000 enrolled students—a 230% increase since 2011. This growth is particularly notable given that overall higher education enrollment has declined by over a million students since 2011—a decline concentrated in the adult learner population. But scale is not the school’s only differentiator. Since its founding, WGU’s programs have been delivered entirely online, using a competency-based education model that allows students to advance upon mastery. WGU’s mascot is the owl, in recognition that the majority of its students are ‘night owls’—working and caring for their families during the day and pursuing their studies at night. WGU students aren’t typical college attendees: the average WGU student is 37 years old, 74% are working full time, and 40% are first-generation college attendees.

WGU also employs a radically different staffing and instructional model from most higher education institutions, and that model is achieving strong results for students as seen in WGU’s data on graduation, job placement, earnings, student debt repayment, and satisfaction with their WGU experience.


  • Alana Dunagan
    Alana Dunagan