Schools of Thought

Students go at own pace at school without boundaries

By Sonya Hamasaki, CNN

Los Angeles (CNN) - After spending 20 years in a midlevel job at a Southern California credit union, Dawn Moore wanted a promotion. But to move up in the company, Moore needed a bachelor's degree. So what stopped her from going back to school? A full-time job, a family and a tight budget.

"I needed a university that was accredited, would work with my schedule, and I could do from home," said Moore, 55. "I just felt at my age and with everything I had going on in my life, I didn't feel like walking to a campus, sitting in a classroom and doing the traditional brick and mortar."

But then she discovered Western Governors University.

The university was started by a group of governors from the West who wanted to make education accessible to adult students with busy lives. It's an online, nonprofit, fully accredited university, a distinction not granted to all online campuses. It's a school without boundaries - there aren't any teachers, curriculums are personalized, and students can go at their own pace.

This type of flexibility draws adults who are strapped for time. The average student is 36, and 70% of them have full-time jobs.

"What makes us most unique is that we're competency-based; we actually measure 'learning' rather than 'time,’ " said Robert W. Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University. "So for each degree, we define what we expect graduates to know, and be able to do. When they demonstrate it, they graduate - independent of how many classes they've taken."

Another deal breaker? Costs. At traditional universities, tuition and fees can run up to more than $30,000 a year. At Western Governors, students pay a flat rate of $3,000 per term, which amounts to $6,000 per year. Rather than paying hundreds of dollars per unit (like in most other schools), students take as many courses as they can handle for a flat rate. This arrangement allows those on the fast track to speed through their classes, saving precious dollars and cents.

Michael Norwood is an Army reservist whose job as a drill sergeant meant traveling at least twice a month. "If I ended up pulling a 12- to 15-hour shift, I could head back to my room and get in a couple (of) hours before I had to call it a night and do it all over again," he said.

Norwood pursued his bachelor's degree in business management while hopscotching the country training Army recruits. "The school helps individuals who are in combat, too, who are actually in the field and away from civilization,” he said. “They have a chance to do their studies and not be penalized for missing a class."

After receiving his diploma, Norwood jumped right back in to classes at Western Governors - this time to pursue an MBA.

Western Governors offers degrees in four areas: business, information technology, teacher education and health care. Students pair up with a mentor, who helps with classes and advises them on when to increase or decrease their loads - depending on what’s going on in their lives.

For Moore, illness interrupted her studies three months after enrolling.

"I found out I had colon cancer," she said. "Western Governors let me do my classes as I was recovering. It wasn't a pressurized situation. I don't feel a traditional school would really let you take a break."

Moore, whose cancer is in remission, said she focused on using her studies to push through recovery.

And two years later? Moore graduated with a bachelor's degree in business management – and she got her promotion.