The Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General audit report of Western Governor’s University is, mostly likely unintentionally, an attack on higher education access and opportunity, but we can turn this into something good. According to sources describing the audit, WGU should pay back 700 million to the government and not be allowed to participate in the federal financial aid program. Regardless of whether this will happen, we are wise to use this to recognize an important problem and fix it. This is a multi-year audio sparked by narrow and outdated language in federal policy that leaves limited room for innovation, experimentation, or diversity of models and frameworks in teaching in learning.
If you look back at the article that I wrote on February of 2017 about what I would do if I were the next US Secretary of Education, you will see that “systematically review existing policies” was near the top of my list. I wrote that statement with these very issues in mind. There is narrow language in federal policies impacting education that do not take into account the diverse set of education practices that existed when many of the policies were first written, let alone today. As such, this is not just a matter of failing to keep up with the research and practice of our day. Many policies have long been barriers to promising practices, alternative methods (that are really not that alternative), and educational innovations that promise increased access, opportunity, reduced cost, improved retention and graduation rates, and any number of positive outcomes.
In one way, it is hard to blame those involved with this audit, because they are simply evaluating WGU on the basis of the existing policies, and a reasonable person can interpret them in a way that excludes a model like what we see at WGU and what we see on the micro level of élite and a myriad of other Universities around the country. For example, consider an élite University that creates a means by which bright students can propose a syllabus for a course and teach it. This happens as several highly ranked schools. The course needs a faculty adviser, but the student is really the teacher of record, lacking the academic qualifications typically required. Or what about the countless independent study courses used in almost every University in the United States? These are accepted practices in the field of education and produce equal or sometimes better results than the narrow frameworks assumed by federal polices associated with financial aid eligibility.
As such, this recent news is a perfect call to action for us to systematically review the existing policies, and prevent this sort of unhelpful audit from happening in the future. We can do better than this. I would love to see Secretary Devos form a truly diverse task force of DOE representatives, researchers, higher education representatives from across the country, as well as some students to help guide this review, making recommendations for quick and substantive changes. We can create policies that protect from fraud and offer reasonable protection of the government’s financial investments while also embracing and amplifying carefully considered education innovation and experimentation. I’d even be happy to help. Let’s create something good out of this unfortunate audit by doing this important policy revision work. As I wrote and say often, policies are muzzles and megaphones, and it is time for us to more carefully analyze what we are muzzling and amplifying.