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Head of new online college emphasizes experience and education

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 1, 2013: As the newly named chancellor for Western Governors University in Missouri, Allen Goben thinks his school’s approach can help businesses that need good workers solve what he says is a real dilemma.

“If you talk with business leaders,” he said in an interview, “they will say if a person is educated, we have to train them. If a person is trained, we have to educate them. Competency-based education emphasizes education and training.”

Goben joins the school after a career spent primarily at community colleges, most recently Heartland Community College in Normal, Ill. He said WGU-Missouri’s approach, in which degrees are based on competence, is the future of education, particularly for the student body his new employer wants to recruit.

“I love the competency-based structure and the ability of working adult students to come in and really focus on workplace-relevant competencies,” he said, “the things they have to do to move forward with their careers and their lives.”

WGU, which was formed in 1995 and operates nationwide, established its Missouri campus earlier this year. It’s aimed at adults who already have some college credits but are short of a degree, and it makes its case with a three-pronged sales pitch:

  • Degrees are awarded based on what you can demonstrate that you know, rather than the time you have spent in class.
  • Classes are all taught online, with no lectures to attend.
  • Tuition is a flat fee, $3,000 a semester, and you can take as many classes as you can handle for that amount.

Goben notes that many of the 750,000 Missourians whose college career has been interrupted can use the flexibility of the WGU approach to help get their education back on track. The school's mascot, fittingly, is the night owl, symbolizing the hours in which many students are expected to do their studying after the responsibilities of family and work are done for the day.
“There is something holding these folks back,” he said. “Every study I’ve ever read shows that life is in the way. We have a fast-paced society. There are a lot of things going on on people’s plate. They are challenged by a more campus-based approach, with credit hours that make time the constant and learning the variable. It’s very structured around time.

“The competency-based approach that WGU uses, with 24/7 access, keeps learning as the constant and time as the variable. So students can accelerate their learning. If they have a lot of life experience and some education under their belt, they can move more quickly through the course work. There is still the same amount of rigor and the same standards, but the focus is on accelerated work toward a degree.”

Also helpful to such students, Goben says, is the school’s focus on four areas that need a steady supply of well-trained workers: information technology, business, health care and education.

“What business leaders have said fairly regularly,” he said, “is that they often have jobs but have trouble matching the training and the skill set of potential employees with those jobs. That’s one of the things I love about WGU-Missouri. It is really focused on high-demand areas.”

The school, which is a not-for-profit private organization, was established with startup costs from a community development block grant of up to $4 million, plus $750,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gov. Jay Nixon has been heavily involved in promoting WGU-Missouri, appearing in its advertisements, but the school is expected to operate on tuition income, with no financial involvement from the state.

That tuition will come from a student body that Goben projects will reach 2,000 in the next couple of years and 5,000 in five years. He hopes to establish partnerships with community colleges, where many prospective WGU students have earned their first credits, plus work with an advisory board of people from education and various sectors of industry.

He said increasing the percentage of Missouri adults with college degrees can have a threefold impact on the state.

“When the overall level of education rises,” Goben said, “all boats are going up. The economy is boosted, so you can have a more vigorous economy. I think everybody knows that. But there are two other really key factors. Crime rates go down, so the criminal justice system costs also go down and the quality of living improves. The same thing happens with health care.

“With all of the challenges we have right now to recover from a sluggish economy, those are key factors, and we can become part of that solution.”

With a few exceptions, established colleges and universities in the state have viewed WGU-Missouri as a welcome addition to the landscape, not necessarily as competition. While its students won’t have the typical college experience – hanging around the quad, leaving home to live on their own – Goben said that they will have a supportive staff to help them make it toward their degree. Establishing a school specific to Missouri – like WGU has already done in Indiana, Texas and Washington state – makes that connection even stronger, he said.

“WGU does a great job with student mentors and course mentors of connecting with students and really plugging them into personalized interaction, with the telephone, online and the like,” he said. “Having a state-based organization in Missouri can help students identify and say I’m part of this organization, and I really to really connect. That can help improve student success.”

Goben’s own Missouri connection includes a wife who is from Hannibal and other relatives who live all over the state. He plans to settle in mid-Missouri but will spend time in St. Louis, where WGU-Missouri will have an office.

“When I finished my doctoral degree in 2003,” he said, “my wife and I sat down and looked at a map and thought where would we really, really like to be. Our No. 1 choice was Missouri.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.